The shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, has said he will not resign over his backing of airstrikes on Isis in Syria, despite his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, writing to all Labour MPs setting out his opposition to military action.
Benn’s insistence that he would disagree with his leader came as David Cameron called on Labour MPs to back military intervention in Syria and “vote on the basis of the arguments”.
The prime minister said there was a “compelling” case for Britain’s involvement and insisted MPs would allow the country to do the “right thing” if they supported the government.
Benn’s stance effectively challenges Corbyn to allow members of the shadow cabinet to vote with their conscience or sack him and other rebels.
At a difficult meeting on Thursday, around half of the shadow cabinet, including Benn, the deputy leader, Tom Watson, the shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, the shadow lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, and others made it clear they were minded to back the government’s case for extending airstrikes when it is put to a vote in the Commons next week.
After that, Corbyn wrote to all Labour MPs explaining his opposition to the prime minister’s proposals. This provoked frustration among many of his colleagues who were expecting further discussions about being allowed a free vote when they re-convened for a meeting on Monday ahead of the Commons debate.
“I do not believe the prime minister’s current proposal for airstrikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it,” Corbyn wrote.
Shadow cabinet ministers had agreed to sound out their constituents over the weekend before coming to a final decision on their positions. In a significant development, Momentum, the grassroots movement of Corbyn supporters,launched a website page to help its supporters lobby their MPs against bombing Syria.
In contrast to Corbyn’s position, Benn said he was clear the UK needed to take effective action against Islamic State (Isis) and every member of parliament needed to come to their own conclusion about whether that was right.
“I’m not going to resign because I am doing my job as shadow foreign secretary,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Pressed again by BBC Breakfast, he said: “I’m going to carry on doing my job as the shadow foreign secretary which is to speak out about what I think the right thing to do is … I’m not planning to resign from anything … It may well be we end up in the position of having a free vote.”
Benn stressed he could not say how he would vote because he had not yet seen the motion being proposed by Cameron, but he made his views in favour of military action very plain.
“There is a clear threat to our citizens and our nation,” he said, citing the Sousse beach massacre, as well as the Paris attacks, downed Russian airliner and bombs in Beirut and Ankara.
Meanwhile, the prime minister is trying to add to pressure on Labour MPs to vote in favour of extending the bombing campaign. Speaking in Malta, where he is attending the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, Cameron said: “I believe there is a compelling case to take the effective action to keep our country safe.
“I thought many members of parliament on all sides of the House of Commons yesterday agreed there was a compelling case, so I would urge all of them to vote on the basis of the arguments for effective action on a compelling case to keep our country safe. Vote on those arguments and we can do the right thing,” he said.
Corbyn is still pushing for a collective shadow cabinet position but that looks increasingly unlikely. There is a possibility of a mass walkout or simply open defiance by his top team if he refuses to let them vote how they want.
The Labour leader had been due to appear in Oldham to campaign in the byelection on Friday but he cancelled it late on Thursday night because of a “number of necessary engagements in London”.
In his round of broadcast interviews, Benn defended Corbyn’s right to write to Labour MPs setting out an anti-strike position, saying the elected leader was perfectly entitled to do so.
Isis in Syria and Iraq
However, dissent among other Labour MPs was beginning to emerge more openly, suggesting Corbyn could be facing a tough meeting of the parliamentary party on Monday evening.
Fiona Mactaggart, a Labour backbencher, who is likely to oppose airstrikes, told BBC Berkshire she thought it was a “sensible strategy” for Corbyn to resign, as the “division at the moment is causing real problems”.
“I think it probably is unsustainable. The problem is that my party doesn’t have the hunger for power that the Conservative party does. The Conservative party is good at getting rid of leaders that aren’t going to lead the party to victory. My party isn’t.”
Asked about speculation of resignations, John Spellar, another backbencher and former defence minister, said: “If anyone should resign over this it should be Jeremy Corbyn.”
But the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, issued an appeal for calm on Twitter. He said: “On Syria, can everyone calm down. We’re all simply working through the issues & coming to final decision. Don’t mistake democracy for division.”
Shadow minister Emily Thornberry, who does not believe the case has been made for airstrikes, said there was a “brutally honest” debate within the party and accepted there would be a rebellion if a whip against airstrikes was imposed.
“When it comes to an issue of war it is something that people think very profoundly about. We do usually act collectively, but I think on issues like this there are times when people cannot stick to a whip which is imposed,” she told the Today programme.
Spellar said Corbyn’s behaviour looked like he was “trying to drive a coup against his own shadow cabinet and sensible members out of the party”.
He said members of the shadow cabinet who did not agree with the leader “should not and must not resign as they are in the right”. He added: “It might be that he is creating his own crisis. It might be that they are deliberately trying to reshape the party.”
The former defence minister also disputed the interpretation of those who say the UN resolution was not clear authorisation for military action against Isis.
“Momentum and the tiny Trots in their Corbyn bunker seem to think they know better than socialist France, radical Venezuela, the Russian regime, and Obama’s democrats as well as Britain’s Conservatives. It was not just the P5 who signed the UN resolution but the whole council.”
Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor and an ally of Corbyn, said he thought there would have to be a free vote, saying: “You can’t force people to vote to kill other people or not to vote to kill them.”
Downing Street is planning to table a vote in the Commons next week. In a sign that a Tory rebellion will be smaller than expected, the chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, Crispin Blunt, who rebelled in a vote on military action in August 2013, signalled his support for the airstrikes.
No 10 remains nervous about Labour’s position but believes that enough MPs will defy Corbyn to neutralise any remaining Tory rebellion.Source: theguardian