CORBYN’S DAY OF HUMILIATION
He’s forced to allow free vote on Syria air strikes U- turn after revolt in shadow cabinet Party is left with no policy on tackling IS
JEREMY Corbyn was humiliated by his shadow cabinet yesterday when he was forced to ditch plans to order his MPs to vote against air strikes in Syria.
Instead – in a dramatic U-turn – they will be offered a free vote on whether or not to back the attacks on Islamic State terrorists.
During a stormy two-hour meeting, Labour’s top team lined up to criticise their leader for his shambolic handling of the issue.
They also forced him to abandon an attempt to unilaterally change Labour’s policy to outright opposition to war – an initiative which his aides had briefed to friendly newspapers as the meeting began. Mr Corbyn had put his faltering authority on the line over the issue. He also came under fire later yesterday at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and was seen making a hasty exit looking ashen-faced.
Labour is left in the bizarre position of having no position on whether Britain should use military force against terrorist fanatics plotting to carry out atrocities in this country.
Mr Corbyn will speak out against air strikes when he responds to Mr Cameron’s proposals in the Commons – expected tomorrow – while shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn is expected to use the debate to speak in favour. A Labour source denied the party’s position was a shambles but admitted it was unusual for the front bench to make the case both for and against war.
A source said Mr Corbyn still had ‘full confidence’ in Mr Benn, but added: ‘Jeremy will be speaking for majority Labour Party opinion, he will be speaking on the basis of Party policy and he will be speaking as the leader of the Labour Party elected with a landslide.’ The row was the culmination of a dramatic 48 hours which had initially seen the Labour leader attempt to strong-arm his party’s most senior figures into backing his pacifist stance.
Mr Corbyn, former chairman of the Stop the War coalition, hit the airwaves over the weekend and insisted that his view would prevail, adding: ‘It’s the leader who decides.’
His ally Diane Abbott stepped up the rhetoric yesterday, saying that allowing Labour MPs a free vote would ‘hand victory to Cameron’.
She added: ‘ The truth is we now know the party as a whole, in the country and even within the Parliamentary Labour Party, is opposed to these bombings and they are looking to Jeremy to show leadership.’
The leader’s office then released the results of an unscientific poll of party supporters, claiming it showed three-quarters were against the war. Labour claimed to have sampled 1,900 of almost 108,000 responses received by the party at the weekend, although it later emerged the figure may have been closer to 100.
Mr Corbyn’s controversial communications chief Seumas Milne briefed the Guardian newspaper that although Labour MPs would get a free vote, the party’s policy would be
‘He wouldn’t say boo to a goose’
changed to make it clear that anyone voting for war would be in breach of the party’s official position.
Infuriated members of the shadow cabinet then staged a co-ordinated revolt which forced Mr Corbyn into total capitulation.
Chief whip Rosie Winterton warned it would be impossible to whip the vote because almost 100 MPs, including members of her own office, backed Mr Cameron on the need for military action against IS.
Several members of the shadow cabinet warned they ‘would not leave the room’ until Mr Corbyn had backed down. Mr Benn threatened to step down and make the case for strikes from the backbenches.
Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham, who is undecided on the case for air strikes, criticised Mr Corbyn’s ‘poor handling’ of the issue – and condemned his attempt to mobilise party members against MPs. Another senior figure accused Mr Corbyn of trying to organise a ‘witch hunt’ against MPs who support military action. One shadow cabinet minister said Mr Corbyn got a ‘ thorough kicking’ in the two hour-long meeting saying: ‘It was unlike any shadow cabinet meeting we’ve had before’.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Mr Corbyn’s closest ally, and Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson both encouraged him to allow a free vote. Mr Corbyn’s climbdown dismayed allies on the Left and provoked anger against moderate MPs.
Pete Willsman, a member of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee, said: ‘Jeremy is so soft he wouldn’t say boo to a goose, he’s so good-natured. I would be much tougher with these people.’
There was further humiliation when Labour MPs laid into Mr Corbyn at a meeting of the PLP. One Labour grandee said later that there was a ‘ferocity’ about the meeting and that Mr Corbyn appeared ‘crouched’.
Labour grandee Margaret Beckett confronted him over his appeal to members saying: ‘You cannot unite the party if the leaders’ office is determined to divide us.’ Jack Dromey said Labour could not ‘look mealy-mouthed on national security’.
ALASTAIR Campbell himself might have blushed to put out yesterday’s statement from Labour, saying the Shadow Cabinet had ‘agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn’s recommendation of a free vote’ on Syria.
Indeed, no amount of spin can disguise that this was a crushing humiliation for a lifelong pacifist who had wanted a firm party line against bombing.
Thus, it seems increasingly likely that David Cameron will get his way tomorrow, while the RAF may go in within days.
This paper has made no secret of our fear that, without boots on the ground or a clear vision of the Syria we want to see after the bombing – and still less, a firm strategy to achieve it – we risk repeating the mistakes of Iraq and Libya.
Of one thing we’re sure: this was the day that by abandoning his convictions Mr Corbyn lost his last, threadbare claim to moral authority.