Sandwiched awkwardly between Hilary Benn and Tom Watson, two supporters of air strikes in Syria, Jeremy Corbyn maintained his unambiguous opposition to military action as the Commons debate began. But it was what he didn’t say that was most notable. Asked by several MPs whether he believed Britain should end its bombing of Isis in Iraq, Corbyn refused to answer (as he did when challenged at this week’s PLP meeting).
He told Labour MP John Woodcock, a supporter of air strikes, “It is not part of the motion today, so we move on with this debate”. Corbyn was one of 24 Labour MPs to vote against intervention in Iraq in 2014 and called last month for the UK to “look again” at its involvement. He was quickly slapped down by a spokesman for Hilary Benn, who said: “Of course Hilary believes the government should always be reviewing these things. His judgment remains the same as it did when parliament overwhelmingly voted, and Labour MPs overwhelmingly voted, to agree to the request for assistance from the Iraqi government to resist the invasion by Isil.”
Corbyn began his statement by demanding, like 13 other MPs, that David Cameron apologise for declaring that opponents of air strikes would be voting with “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”. But despite the appeals of Benn and Watson, Cameron again refused to do so.
Corbyn went on to warn that air strikes by the UK would not have a “significant military impact on the existing campaign”, that there were no “credible ground forces” to retake territory from Isis, that the recent UN resolution did not provide “clear and unambiguous authorisation” for air strikes (prompting Benn to shake his head), that intervention would increase, rather than reduce, the terrorist threat to Britain, that bombing would “kill innocent civilians” and “turn many more Syrians into refugees”, and that military action would undermine, rather than enable, a “comprehensive negotiated political settlement” to the civil war. Opposition to air strikes was not “pacifism”, he declared, but “hard-headed common sense”.
There is no doubt that Cameron will win a majority for military action – the only question is how large it will be. With the support of the Lib Dems and the DUP, and around 10 Tory rebels, he may come close to winning without the aid of Labour MPs. A spokesman for Corbyn said: “I think it’s expected that the government is going to win the vote today. But it’s lost the argument”. After initial briefing that 99 Labour MPs would vote for air strikes (regarded as an attempt at expectation management by Corbyn’s office), sources now predict that around 40 will support military actions this evening at 10pm.