Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Times's Daniel Finkelstein questions why the expenses scandal has been largely ignored at the party conferences:

Last week, Labour underplayed parliament's biggest crisis in a generation in a really quite astonishing way. This scandal only broke a few weeks ago. People are still resigning, for goodness' sake. But it made page 94 or whatever of the Prime Minister's speech and he was finished with it before page 95. It wasn't centre stage in Nick Clegg's speech either. What were they thinking? By the time David Cameron sits down tomorrow, the Tories need to be sure that the story is very different.

In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins advises David Cameron to focus on leadership over policy:

The Tories do not have to convince voters that they are responsible or competent. They can leave Gordon Brown to convince voters that he is not, and offer instead a leader with whom the electorate can feel comfortably at home for the next four or five years. Cameron's aura of slightly foppish inexperience is surely preferable to a procession of shadow ministers banging their tin-can policies and inviting lobbyists to attack them at every turn. Their pledges merely saddle a Tory government with the odium of U-turn and reversal. By pledging to cut Whitehall "by a third", Cameron advertises his inexperience. He never will.

The New York Times's Bob Herbert argues that Barack Obama has not responded urgently enough to the US jobs crisis:

No big ideas have emerged. No dramatically creative initiatives. While devoting enormous amounts of energy to health care, and trying now to decide what to do about Afghanistan, the president has not even conveyed the sense of urgency that the crisis in employment warrants.

In the Financial Times, the think tank head Charles Grant says that Tony Blair would make a fine EU president:

[N]otwithstanding Iraq, he has a track record as a successful politician. He brokered a peace deal for Northern Ireland, while his recent work on the Palestinian economy shows a commitment to settling the Middle East conflict. As for the EU, he invented its defence policy (with Jacques Chirac, the former French president), helped create the Lisbon agenda of economic reform, and ensured that climate change and energy security became priorities.

On the eve of a docudrama on David Cameron's days in the Bulllingdon Club, the Independent's Michael Brown warns Labour not to revert to class warfare:

Labour would . . . be ill-advised to revert to an old-style class war campaign against the Cameroons. The working class continues to shrink and, in straitened times, the aspirational middle class puts more of the blame squarely at the door of Gordon Brown's profligacy than at rich City banking friends of the Tories.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while he would hold a free vote, party policy would be changed to oppose military action, an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention (though it is reported that just 100 emails were checked).

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, members made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbot and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet. There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"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."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.