For decades, British foreign policy has been underpinned by a bipartisan consensus. Both the Labour and the Conservative leaderships jointly supported intervention in the Falklands, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Syria was the exception, when Ed Miliband and Tory rebels joined forces to defeat the government motion proposing military action in 2013. Yet this was an accidental victory. Senior Labour figures told me afterwards that they never expected David Cameron to rule out intervention in response.
With the likely election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition on 12 September, the division between the two parties will become far sharper. As chair of the Stop the War Coalition, Corbyn opposed all of the above interventions and, when asked at a recent hustings whether there were any circumstances in which he would support military force, replied: “Any? I am sure there are some. But I can’t think of them at the moment.” Having voted against the air strikes on Isis in Iraq, he has unambiguously rejected Cameron’s proposal to extend the operation to Syria.
The Prime Minister has long signalled his desire to win Commons approval for further intervention. Ministers believe there is no purpose in respecting a border that Isis has rendered void. The surge in the number of refugees is partly attributable to the jihadis’ brutality and has hardened their convictions. The perilous parliamentary arithmetic explains why they nevertheless advance with caution.
Two years ago, Cameron became the first prime minister to lose a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782. Still wounded by that experience, he will not act without “a copper-bottomed guarantee of victory”, in the words of one Tory MP. When Cameron was defeated in August 2013, the coalition had a majority of 74. He now has just 12. The defeat over EU referendum “purdah” rules, the earliest any government has suffered on a whipped vote since 1945, demonstrated how easily it can be eradicated.
On 4 September, the Prime Minister announced he would table a motion on military action only “if there is genuine consensus in the UK” – code for bipartisan support. The election of Corbyn would nullify this ambition. But George Osborne, an ardent interventionist, later gave a more nuanced view. He emphasised that the government would “have to win the vote” but would not require the support of “every member of every party”. Corbyn or not, the Tories are prepared to advance with a parliamentary coalition of the willing.
When the Commons voted on air strikes in Iraq last year, 24 Labour MPs rebelled and opposed the intervention. Although the Tories recognise that Syria will be a harder case to prove, the hope is that enough of Corbyn’s MPs would reject his position for them to prevail. The government has sought to win them over by holding confidential briefings at the Foreign Office.
Until now, some on the Labour side avoided rebelling purely out of loyalty to Miliband. But few would feel any such duty to Corbyn, who has broken the whip 534 times since 1997. As Mike Gapes recently told me: “I’ll show him as much loyalty as he showed other leaders.” On Syria, Gapes said: “There are many of us who are not pacifists, who are not isolationists and believe in humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect.”
Although many MPs are waiting until a specific proposal is tabled before breaking cover, Labour sources estimate that as many as 30 would vote for military action. One told me: “Absolutely I’ll support it and many others will, too. They feel completely ashamed by what we did two years ago.” Some were uncomfortable with how Miliband’s unintended victory was subsequently spun as a landmark decision to halt a “rush to war”.
Labour’s interventionists believe that much depends on Cameron’s performance. Ben Bradshaw, who abstained rather than vote against military action in Syria in 2013, told me: “If David Cameron wants to make a case, he’s going to have to make it much better and work much harder at it than his botched attempt the summer before last.” Another MP suggested Labour should offer support in order to “leverage a more generous response on refugees”. She added: “Their line is, ‘If we bomb them we won’t need to take refugees.’ That is pie in the sky. It might be a good thing to do; it might put more pressure on [Isis] and possibly Assad, depending on what happens. But it’s not going to calm the situation down at such a rate that we’re going to have fewer refugees.”
Tory sources suggest that a vote will now be held in early October. As well as Corbyn’s stance, the obstacles include the opposition of the 56 SNP MPs and perhaps 20 Tory doves. The former cabinet minister John Redwood told me: “I’m extremely cautious about it all . . . I don’t think any of these military things can provide a solution without a political strategy as well.” The DUP and the Liberal Democrats, with eight MPs each, are also sceptical. Cameron’s decision to approve the unprecedented targeted killing of British jihadists in Syria has increased his vulnerability.
Should a vote be held this autumn, the symbolism would be rich. If Jeremy Corbyn is elected, Labour backbenchers and their leader could find themselves in opposing division lobbies within weeks. More splits, most notably over Trident, would follow.
The Conservatives will miss few opportunities to divide and rule. But if they wish to win parliamentary approval for military action against Isis in Syria, they must avoid any appearance of gamesmanship. Should Cameron display any pleasure at the disunity in Labour, the party’s hawks could soon swoop on him.
This article appears in the 09 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles