Labour could back Syria strikes despite Corbyn opposition, says Hilary Benn

Big Ben at Midnight

Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, has signalled Labour could support David Cameron in launching airstrikes in Syria, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to military action.

Benn said Labour would only make a decision on whether to back strikes after the prime minister has set out his proposals, while there are reports that up to half of the shadow cabinet could defy Corbyn and vote with the government in favour of airstrikes.

His comments come as Corbyn’s first week as Labour leader concludes with widespread signs of policy divisions, derision from former Labour grandees and claims from the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, of possible defections by MPs.

Corbyn has already been forced to clarify that he would not campaign for withdrawal from the EU or Nato, after shadow cabinet members said they would not serve without reassurances that Labour policy would not change on these issues.

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 live’s Pienaar’s Politics, Benn said no decision has been taken about Syria airstrikes and would not be drawn on whether the shadow cabinet could be allowed a free vote to avoid resignations.

“What we’ve said consistently is that the government if it has got a proposal should bring that to the House of Commons.

“In relation to airstrikes, we shall look at the objectives. At the moment we don’t know what the proposal is … We will judge that against the objective, the legal base, what is the argument, is it about a lack of capacity to fight Isil, Daesh [Islamic State] … I would also say to you the refugee crisis, this tide of humanity trying to move that we need a wider approach. There has got to be a wider international effort to find a peace agreement.”

Corbyn set himself against airstrikes in Syria when he called for “peaceful solutions” at a rally for refugees after being elected Labour leader.

He told supporters: “I have been in parliament a long time and I’ve seen many decisions taken. In moments of clamour and moments of fervour decisions are made – go here, invade there, bomb there, do this, do that. It is the easy situation. The media build it up, there’s lots of military advice, there’s lots of apparently simple and easy solutions.

“Tragically, wars don’t end when the last bullet is fired or the last bomb is dropped. The mourning and the loss of soldiers of all uniforms goes on, the mourning and the loss of families that lost loved ones because of bombardments and fighting – that goes on. The refugees move on and on and there are whole generations of refugees around the world that are victims of various wars.”

Earlier on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Benn also said he could not see the Labour party supporting any move to scrap Trident, or withdraw from Nato. Asked whether Labour could vote to leave Nato at its annual conference, following Corbyn’s criticisms of the alliance, he said: “I don’t think that is going to happen.

“We’ve been members of Nato since it was created, in part with the support of the Labour government at the end of the second world war that created the NHS and Ernie Bevin was the foreign secretary that helped make it happen, and it has been a cornerstone of our security – I simply don’t see that happening.

“My view is that we need to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent. I share with Jeremy the wish to see a world which is free of nuclear weapons, but I don’t believe for one second that if Britain were to give up its deterrent any other of the nuclear states would give theirs up.

“The truth is that we live in a differently dangerous world now and we need a continuous at-sea-deterrent, and we need to do it in the most cost effective way – that is the view the Labour party conference has taken for many years now.”

Earlier, Farron, the Lib Dem leader, confirmed he had been in touch with at least two disillusioned Labour MPs but he said he did not think there would be any imminent defections.

Labour party grandees also made interventions on Sunday that could undermine Corbyn. Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, suggested the party was preparing to fight the next election without the newly appointed leader.

He told Murnaghan on Sky News: “I think it is a question of whether he will get so far as the 2020 general election but I think the party will be very keen to give him a chance and be working, of course, on its own proposals to try and ensure that we can contest the Tories effectively at the next election.

“But, at the end of the day, it is very much in Jeremy Corbyn’s own hands as to how long he lasts.”

He added: “It’s obviously been a very bad week for him.”

Clarke said there was “absolutely no chance of defections” and Farron was making “mischief”.

Asked if members were giving the new leader enough rope to hang himself, he replied: “We’ll have to see if he does hang himself in anyway. So far the signs for Jeremy Corbyn aren’t particularly good.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowena Mason, political correspondent​, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th September 2015 12.32 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010