Jeremy Corbyn is facing intense pressure to give Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes in Syria, with his shadow cabinet openly split on whether to back David Cameron’s call for military action.
Deputy leader Tom Watson became the latest leading figure to speak out in support of bombing Islamic State (IS) in its Syrian heartland – putting him directly at odds with the party leader.
Senior figures on both sides played down the prospect of mass resignations if the shadow cabinet does not agree to give MPs a vote when it meets on Monday – something Mr Corbyn has previously rejected. But with more than half his top team now against him on the issue, the Labour leader may have to agree to stave off a mutiny.
While allies of Mr Corbyn appealed for calm within the Labour ranks, critics on the backbenches openly voiced their contempt for his “weak” leadership and urged him to step down. Even some sympathetic MPs admitted that he would be unable to carry on if it became clear that he was a “liability” to the party’s chances at the next general election.
The row was triggered by Mr Corbyn’s decision on Thursday to release a letter declaring he could not support RAF air strikes in Syria – seen by some MPs as an attempt to pre-empt Monday’s meeting.
However Mr Watson backed shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn – who was reportedly briefed by intelligence chiefs on the threat from IS – who said there was a “compelling” case for extending RAF airstrikes, currently restricted to Iraq, into Syria.
“I think there is an imminent terrorist threat being directed from Syria,” he said.
With allies of Mr Corbyn warning critics would face the wrath of grass roots activists unless they fell into line, Mr Watson made clear he had no intention of resigning – saying that he also had been elected by party members. “I am the deputy leader of the Labour Party with a mandate,” he said.
Mr Benn also said that he intended to carry on in the shadow cabinet and suggested that a free vote may be the only way out of the impasse.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, one of Mr Corbyn’s close allies, appealed for calm, insisting the party was “working through the issues”.
Francois Hollande has called on MPs to back military intervention in Syria after the Paris attacks. The French President thanked Britain for the support it has shown his country following the atrocity and said he hoped that Parliament would now back the case for air strikes put forward by David Cameron.
He said at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in Malta: “I do hope that the House of Commons will be able to meet the request of Prime Minister Cameron.” The president’s comments will be seen as an appeal to Labour MPs wavering over action in Syria.
Meanwhile, ex London mayor Ken Livingstone has come under fire from Labour MPs for suggesting Tony Blair was to blame for the 7/7 terror attacks in the capital. Mr Livingstone, who is co-chairing Labour’s review of its defence policy, told BBC Question Time that the exprime minister’s decision to join the Iraq war had “killed 52 Londoners”.