Corbyn grants MPs free vote on Syria air strikes

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on-screen and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon appearing on the BBC One current affairs programme, The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.  Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on-screen and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon appearing on the BBC One current affairs programme, The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

Labour MPs are to be granted a free vote on air strikes against Islamic State (IS) in Syria, the party has confirmed.

Leader Jeremy Corbyn has made clear his personal opposition to extending RAF bombing missions from Iraq into Syria, but will not require his MPs to follow him into the No lobby if David Cameron calls a vote on strikes against IS, also known as Isil or Isis.

Mr Corbyn wrote to the Prime Minister asking for a full two-day debate in the House of Commons before MPs decide.

In a statement following a two-hour meeting of the shadow cabinet, a Labour spokesman said: “Today’s shadow cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn’s recommendation of a free vote on the Government’s proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.

“The shadow cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full-two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.

“Shadow cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by Isis; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to Isis.”

A Labour source said the shadow cabinet was told that 57% of Labour MPs are opposed to air strikes, with 43% in favour, suggesting that almost 100 could join Tories in backing military action, with around 132 following Mr Corbyn in to the No lobby.

This appears to open the door for Mr Cameron to secure the “clear majority” in the Commons which he says is needed before calling a vote.

With as many as 20-30 Conservative MPs thought to be wary of airstrikes in Syria and the Scottish National Party implacably opposed, the Prime Minister needs the support of a similar number of Labour MPs to be confident of avoiding a repeat of his 2013 defeat when he sought approval to bomb the forces of president Bashar Assad.

Downing Street confirmed that work has started on drafting a motion for MPs to debate but insisted that there is so far no timetable for a vote, which Westminster insiders believe could come as early as Wednesday.

In a letter to Mr Cameron, Mr Corbyn said: “On a matter of such critical importance there must be full and adequate time for any debate in the House and only a full two-day debate would ensure time for all members who wish to participate to be able to do so.

“As has happened previously, a one-day debate would inevitably lead to important contributions being curtailed. It is incumbent on us all to ensure the country feels there has been the fullest parliamentary discussion of what you have rightly described as a highly complex situation.”

Senior Conservative backbencher David Davis backed Mr Corbyn’s “eminently sensible” call for a two-day debate and said it would be “perfectly possible” to make time for it to take place before Christmas.

“The decision to go to war is by definition a matter of life and death,” said the former shadow home secretary.

“If the Government is seeking the authority of Parliament to undertake such a policy it should do so on the basis of the best-informed, and most carefully considered, debate.”

Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said the free vote was “the right decision” and the party policy remained as set out in a motion passed by its conference in September.

There is dispute over whether these conditions - authorisation from the United Nations, a comprehensive plan for humanitarian assistance and assurances that bombing will be directed solely at IS and will be subordinate to diplomatic efforts to end the war - have been met.

Shortly before the shadow cabinet meeting, Labour released analysis of responses to a survey of party members, which appeared to show overwhelming opposition to the extension of military action.

The survey, ordered by Mr Corbyn, received 107,875 responses, of which 64,771 were confirmed as full individual Labour Party members.

An initial analysis of 1,900 responses showed 75% opposed to bombing, 13% in favour of the air strikes and 11% undecided.

But Labour MP John Woodcock, who is in favour of airstrikes, said the poll was “completely not credible”.

“I just imagine what Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott and John McDonnell would have had to say if a past Labour leader had deployed those kind of tactics one hour before a very important meeting of the Cabinet before military intervention,” said Mr Woodcock.

He questioned whether the vote would be genuinely free, with “certain people floating around the edges and warning of the dire consequences to their political future if they vote in the way that they believe to be right, which just happens to be in disagreement with the leadership”.

Pete Willsman, a constituency party representative on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee, said Mr Corbyn should impose a three-line whip and be “tougher” on MPs who back military action

“They are not there to vote with the Tories. They are there to vote with Labour and follow the Labour conference policy,” Mr Willsman told BBC Radio 4’s World at One, ahead of the shadow cabinet meeting.

“Who do these people think they are? It’s just amazing, they are speaking to the press all the time, they are totally disloyal.

“It’s just appalling but Jeremy is so soft he wouldn’t say boo to a goose, he’s so good-natured. I would be much tougher with these people and the NEC would be much tougher on them.”

Number 10 confirmed it had received Mr Corbyn’s letter, but said it had not yet responded.

Mr Cameron has been in Paris on Monday and is due to make a further trip abroad on Thursday, limiting the time available for him to take part in a debate and vote this week.

Asked if he was pleased that Labour MPs appeared to have been given a free vote, a Downing Street spokesman said: “Ultimately, it is up to all parliamentarians to come to a conclusion.

“The Government position on this is very clear, the Prime Minister has set out a very clear strategy.”

The draft motion being discussed within government covered not only military action, but also the other prongs of Mr Cameron’s strategy, involving work on counter-terrorism, the diplomatic and political process and ongoing humanitarian aid, said the spokesman.

A senior Labour source said both Mr Corbyn and Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn would speak from the despatch box in the Commons debate, even though they would vote in opposite directions, but denied the party’s position was “shambolic”.

Labour would push for a two-day debate which should not be held until next week at the earliest, and called on Mr Cameron to allow his MPs a free vote.

Mr Corbyn was clear that the conditions of Labour’s conference motion had not been met and believed opinion within the party - including the shadow cabinet - was moving towards opposing air strikes.

“He will be leading the opposition to the Government’s case for war which he, and many other people of course, don’t believe has been satisfactorily made,” the source said.

But Mr Benn will speak to put the other view in a move the source conceded was “certainly unusual”.

“I don’t think it’s shambolic. It’s taking account of the fact that there are very significant differences of opinion, as we know, in the shadow cabinet about this issue.”

Asked if Mr Corbyn was disappointed that he had not been able to persuade his party to oppose the bombing campaign, the source said: “It was always the intention to try to achieve a common view. People on both sides of the argument wanted to achieve, and hoped to achieve, a common view.”

“Given that that hasn’t been possible across the shadow cabinet - although opinion has clearly shifted in the direction of opposition to bombing, he decided - also on the basis of the consultation of party members - that the right thing to do was go for a free vote and press very hard, make the case, against the Government’s rush to war.”