Iraqi Yazidi fighter stands guard outside a shrine on August 10, 2014 in Sheikhan. Photograph: Getty Images.
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MPs want a chance to debate Iraq whether or not military action is planned

Downing Street is wrong to reject demands for a recall on the grounds that "our focus is humanitarian support". 

Three days after the new western mission in Iraq began, support for a recall of parliament is growing among MPs. Conservative Conor Burns has emailed the Speaker requesting a recall and has also written to Michael Gove (now Chief Whip) criticising Britain's limited response to the humanitarian crisis.

"I feel very strongly that the government's response is not hard enough or strong enough," he said. "These people are being beheaded by people from IS, and our only response is to drop some food or water on them. I think the US and UK should be involved in air strikes. I am not by any means advocating a ground war but I think we should put our special forces in there."

Other Tories demanding a recall include Glyn Davies ("I suggested recall weeks ago. [There is a] much stronger case for it than the motion we MPs returned for last summer"), Andrew Rosindell ("Britain cannot stand by and watch brutal terror being carried out against Christians in Iraq"), Nick de Bois and David Burrowes. The latter pair write in a letter to David Cameron: 

"What we are witnessing in Iraq is truly shocking and requires a co-ordinated international response. The horrific persecution of minority groups in the region impose both a moral obligation and a duty to our constituents to reconvene so that the escalating crisis can be properly debated with a view to the government being able to seek guidance from and support of the House for policies aimed at ending the killing. It is vital that the House of Commons debate an appropriate response to this emergency.

"Whilst the government is rightly engaged in a massive humanitarian effort we believe that the lack of a co-ordinated international response and the unilateral military intervention of the US demand the urgent attention of parliamentarians at this time."

On the Labour side, Tom Watson, Andrew Gwynne, Graham Allen and Mike Gapes (writing on The Staggers), the former chair of the foreign affairs select committee, have also made the case for a recall. Gapes wrote: "The Prime Minister may feel unable to act now following his defeat and mishandling of the Syria debate last August. He should get over it and urgently recall Parliament. I hope we can then, with opposition support, achieve a massive vote for UK military intervention alongside our US and NATO partners to defend and protect our democratic and secular Kurdish friends and to stop the genocide of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities by ISIL in Iraq and Syria."

Downing Street has responded by arguing that there is no need for a recall on the grounds that "our focus is humanitarian support" and that military action is currently not planned. But while this may be true, what MPs are demanding is a chance to debate whether that is the right stance for the government to take, not merely to approve it. Some of those calling for a recall, such as Conor Burns and Mike Gapes, support UK military action, but others, such as Tom Watson and Nick de Bois, currently do not. 

With the government not ruling out UK air strikes if the situation deteriorates, and three weeks to go before the end of the recess, there is merit in parliament returning to debate the circumstances (if any) in which military intervention would be appropriate. One of the reasons why MPs rebelled over Syria was the government's failure to consult them earlier in the process. If Cameron does eventually decide to take military action, he will have more chance of winning approval if parliament is recalled now. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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