Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's refusal to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria shows his newly assertive approach

Against expectations, the opposition leader says shadow ministers will not be permitted to support air strikes against Isis. 

Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader the assumption has been that he will offer his MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis in Syria (should the government bring one forward). The divisions within the party over the issue and Corbyn's rebellious past (voting against the whip 534 times since 1997) meant that to many it seemed the logical option. Shadow ministers would be permitted to vote in favour of air strikes while Corbyn and others voted against. When asked about the issue at the Labour conference in September, Corbyn refused to dismiss the possibility. 

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, his closest ally, went further and said a free vote would be appropriate: "There are some big ticket issues where there are some principled disagreements. On a lot of other issues you can see consensus and compromise. Jeremy is teaching me how to reach consensus and compromise – bloody difficult I tell you. But on a number of big ticket issues the reality is we have to agree that we can’t agree.

"We haven’t come to this conclusion yet about Syria. But my view – I have been in parliament and on five occasions we have gone to war. It just focuses your mind. You get a chill down your spine when you are making a decision to send people into war where there could be a possible loss of life … When you are sending people with a potential loss of life I think it is a conscience decision, I think it is a moral decision.

"So I am hoping on the Syria thing it should be a free vote on the basis of conscience. On that big ticket issue that is the way we should go. I will try and win the argument. But I have got to recognise on this particular issue I respect people if they feel otherwise because it is such a morally challenging decision to make whether you are going to go to war and a result of that people will be maimed and there could be a loss of life."

But interviewed by Sky News today, Corbyn said: "I don’t think a free vote is something that we are offering". At last week's shadow cabinet meeting, he emphasised the value of collective responsibility and implicitly rebuked shadow cabinet ministers, such as shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle, for undermining his authority by taking contradictory positions. Corbyn's refusal to offer a free vote is the first example of his newly assertive approach. 

His stance means it will be even harder for Cameron to secure a Commons majority for air strikes. While there are around 30 Labour backbenchers prepared to rebel against the leadership, shadow ministers would now be forced to resign in order to vote for military action. At this early stage of the parliament, as they seek to exert influence over Corbyn, few will want to do so.

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