Yemen bombings: Rishi Sunak defends UK strikes in Red Sea amid inflation fears as SNP seek answers over long-term strategy

The Prime Minister updated MPs following military action against the Houthis in Yemen

Rishi Sunak has insisted the UK must be “prepared to back our words with actions”, as a fresh strike against a US-owned ship in the Red Sea fuelled tensions and economists warned the conflict risked fuelling a new spike in inflation.

Refusing to rule out further attacks in the Red Sea, the Prime Minister used a statement in the House of Commons to defend the UK Government’s actions following last week’s air strikes against Houthi rebels.

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It follows the UK joining the US in targeting Houthi locations in Yemen last week as part of efforts to ensure international cargo vessels can travel through the vital shipping route after assaults by the Iran-backed militants.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak updates MPs over the Red Sea shipping attacks in the House of Commons.Prime Minister Rishi Sunak updates MPs over the Red Sea shipping attacks in the House of Commons.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak updates MPs over the Red Sea shipping attacks in the House of Commons.

Making a statement in the Commons shortly after a missile struck a US-owned ship off the coast of Yemen, Mr Sunak faced questions about whether the use of force was isolated, and what his long-term strategy was for peace in the region.

He told MPs: “The threats to shipping must cease. Illegally detained vessels and crews must be released. And we remain prepared to back our words with actions.

“I can tell the House today that our initial assessment is that all 13 planned targets were destroyed. We have seen no evidence thus far of civilian causalities, which we took great care to avoid.”

The Prime Minister declined to put the use of force to a vote in the Commons, despite both the SNP and Lib Dems calling for Parliament to be recalled on Friday last week to debate the crisis.

Weeks of attacks by Houthi rebels have posed a threat to the flow of global trade, disrupting merchant vessels passing through the sea to the Suez Canal – a route that serves 15 per cent of world shipping.

Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at financial services giant Allianz and president of Queens' College, Cambridge, said the conflict threatened to fuel “higher inflation, higher mortgage rates and lower growth” for the UK.

"I'm really worried," he told the BBC. "We are facing significant headwinds, we are living in a new reality where the supply side of the global economy is much more fragile which means inflationary tendencies are greater than they used to be."

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As much as 15 per cent of global trade travels through the Red Sea suing the Bab al-Mandab Strait – a 20-mile wide channel of water between the Horn of Africa and the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula – and the Suez Canal.

The Houthis, who support Hamas in the Palestinian group’s war against Israel, claim they have targeted ships with links to Tel Aviv.

RAF air strikes, carried out alongside American allies last week, had looked to curtail the militants’ ability to disrupt international shipping, with cargo firms forced to reroute around the southern tip of Africa to avoid the Red Sea — a longer and more costly journey.

Mr Sunak stressed the UK’s participation in air strikes was “completely unrelated” to the Israel-Gaza conflict and Yemen’s civil war.

He said: “We shouldn’t fall for their [the Houthis’] malign narrative that this is about Israel and Gaza. They target ships from around the world.

“And we continue to work towards a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza and to get more aid to civilians. We also continue to support a negotiated settlement in Yemen’s civil war. But I want to be very clear that this action is completely unrelated to those issues.

“It is a direct response to the Houthis’ attacks on international shipping.”

However, Mr Sunak would not commit to ramp up defence spending ahead of the next general election, as Tory MPs pressured him to invest more amid increasing global threats.

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Sir Julian Lewis, who chairs Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, was among the backbench Conservatives urging the Prime Minister to increase the UK’s defence spending commitment to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP)

Mr Sunak criticised Labour MP Apsana Begum for linking the strikes to the situation in Israel-Gaza, saying it "“just gives ammunition to our enemies”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party backed the “targeted action”, but warned any military operation must be “underpinned by a clear strategy”.

He said: “Can he [Mr Sunak] confirm that he stands by the parliamentary convention that where possible military interventions by the UK Government – particularly if they are part of a sustained campaign – should be brought before this House?

“Scrutiny is not the enemy of strategy. Because while we back the action taken last week, these strikes still do bring risk. We must avoid escalation across the Middle East.”

Mr Sunak replied: “I can assure him that it was necessary to strike at speed, as he acknowledged, to protect the security of these operations.”

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn raised the issue of a long-term strategy, warning the Yemini militant group had been “unperturbed” by bombings from Saudi Arabia for many years.

He said: “If, as has been suggested through their actions over the course of the last 12 hours or so, the message which we sought to send has not been received, then what do we intend to do? What is the plan? What is the Prime Minister’s strategy?

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“Will he come to the despatch box and unlike his predecessors in relation to Middle East conflicts in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria, will he outline when and how far he is willing to go in relation to military action? Because we cannot have an escalation which leads to further regional instability.”

Mr Flynn also criticised the decision not to inform Parliament beforehand, telling MPs: “It is quite clear that this House should have been recalled. It is what the public would have expected and I would urge him to do better in future.”

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey called on the Prime Minister to set out what he was doing to ensure the strikes “remain limited”.

Sir Ed told the Commons: “While not having a vote in this House is regrettable, Liberal Democrats support limited strikes against the Houthis to open international shipping lanes. But we cannot lose sight of the fact this region is a tinderbox.

“Attacks on US soldiers in Syria and Iraq, the terrorism of Islamic State in Iran, the rockets of Hezbollah, the Israeli drone strikes in Beirut, all stemming from the horrifying conflict in Israel and Gaza.

“Can the Prime Minister set out what conversations he has had with our Nato and European allies, but also leaders of Gulf countries, to ensure that these limited strikes remain limited?”

Clashes continued over the weekend and into Monday, with defence secretary Grant Shapps refusing to rule out British armed forces joining further strikes.

Washington on Saturday launched a new strike against a Houthi location in Yemen that was determined a threat, according to US officials. The US military confirmed on Sunday that one of its fighter jets had shot down an anti-ship cruise missile fired at an American destroyer in the Red Sea.

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Mr Shapps, asked whether the UK could join another wave of strikes, told Sky News: “If we have to take further action, that is something that we will consider.”

During a later speech in central London, the Cabinet minister said the strike against the Houthis was intended as a “single action”, rather than part of a campaign of military attacks.

He said: “We will now monitor very carefully to see what they do next, how they respond and we will see from there.”

Mr Sunak insisted the allies’ aim was to “de-escalate tensions in the region” after commercial shipping and a Royal Navy warship were attacked by the Houthis.

The Prime Minister said he remained committed to parliamentary convention and precedent, but told MPs the “need to maximise the security and effectiveness of the operation meant that it was not possible to bring this matter to the House in advance”.

“But we took care to brief members before the strikes took place, including you, of course, Mr Speaker, and the leader of the Opposition, and I have come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity,” he said.

The Prime Minister also said the UK was considering “all diplomatic tools”, including using sanctions against Iran if necessary, amid reports the country had stepped up its weapons grade uranium enrichment.



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