Labour set to whip MPs over Syria as Diane Abbott warns she could resign

Shadow public health minister says intervention "would put me in a very difficult position" as Labour signals it will whip MPs in support of Miliband's stance.

Ahead of tomorrow's recall of parliament, MPs from all parties are voicing their scepticism and in some cases opposition towards intervention in Syria. The most senior Labour figure to do so is Diane Abbott. While it is often forgotten given her long spell as a maverick backbencher, Abbott has been shadow public health minister since 2010, having been appointed by Ed Miliband after standing in the Labour leadership election. 

The Hackney North MP was quick to signal her concern over military action yesterday, when she tweeted: "Blair joins clamour for attack on Syria. Another reason why it's probably a bad idea." She went on to tell the Guardian: "I voted against the Iraq War. At the moment, I can't see anything that would make me vote for intervention in Syria. Essentially it's a civil war. What Libya and Egypt have taught us is that these situations in the Middle East are complex. It's not good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats."

Asked whether she would resign from the frontbench if Labour supported intervention, she replied: "It would put me in a very difficult position." While Ed Miliband has yet to explicitly state that he will vote in favour of military action, he has said that he is prepared to support the government provided that the intervention is "legal", "specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons" and that it has "clear and achievable military goals".

A Labour source told me this morning that the party "was likely" to whip its MPs, citing the precedents of Iraq and Libya. As a result, any frontbencher who opposes intervention (assuming that Miliband supports the government) would be expected to resign their position. Abbott told Daybreak this morning that she was "waiting to hear the debate" but added: "on the basis of what I know now, I'm not even sure this intervention will be legal and it's certainly not the case that Assad is going to wake up the morning after we bomb him and say 'oh, less of these atrocities'. It runs a big risk of making matters worse and of dragging us into a civil war in Syria with no endgame." 

The question for Miliband, as he seeks to preserve party unity, is how many other shadow ministers may be prepared to join Abbott if she decides to resign, rather than support military action. 

Shadow public health minister Diane Abbott speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496