James Heale James Heale

Labour demands answers on Houthi airstrikes

Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

This morning, ministers woke up to the news of a second joint airstrike against the Houthis in Yemen – and some in Westminster have been left reeling that the attacks came as a surprise. Some eight targets were struck, according to the Pentagon, in a UK and US effort to deter continued interference with shipping operations from pirates in the Red Sea. It follows action taken on 11 January. 

However, unlike before the previous attack, neither Sir Keir Starmer nor Lindsay Hoyle were briefed in advance by the government. The Labour leader backed the first mission, but both the SNP and some left-wing Labour MPs warned of the potential for regional escalation. Their fears will not have been allayed by Downing Street’s decision this time not to share details of the attack with the opposition in advance. This choice follows reports that US military figures were frustrated after news of the first attack leaked in Westminster.

Speaking on the morning media round today, transport minister Huw Merriman told broadcasters that his ‘understanding’ was that ‘they [the opposition] were informed’. But Labour’s Karin Smyth denied this at the Institute for Government, with party sources insisting that neither Starmer nor John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, received a briefing ahead of time yesterday evening. 

Labour has since pushed for an Urgent Question on this topic, which has been granted by the Speaker for early this afternoon. Rishi Sunak will begin his statement at 12:30, with the Prime Minister likely to repeat many of the arguments around self-defence that he gave a fortnight ago. The opposition is expected to continue supporting the government in this action and future rounds of airstrikes. But at a time of heightened sensitivities around the Middle East amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza, it’s a reminder of the potential for the tinder-box region to ignite passions on all sides.

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