Jeremy Corbyn and Hilary Benn at odds over stance on military action

A series of Labour MPs raised concerns about the party’s approach to Syria and the threat of Islamist fundamentalists at a tense meeting of the parliamentary Labour party.

As Jeremy Corbyn indicated that his MPs are unlikely to be given a free vote on any extension of Britain’s military action against Islamic State forces, Labour opponents rounded on their leader for failing to answer their concerns on Monday night.

Critics pointed out that Corbyn failed to attract any applause as he was questioned about his views on the targeting of Isis terrorists in Syria and Iraq and on the use of lethal force in the UK.

In contrast, the shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn was applauded as he spoke of how Isis forces are guilty of beheadings, rapes and the murder of gay people. “They are without doubt fascists,” Benn told the meeting.

Benn challenged those who said that the UK should rule out any military action, saying: “To those that say that taking action in Syria will make things worse, I say, things are pretty bad for those in Syria and for our citizens too.”

The shadow foreign secretary was applauded when he warned of the dangers posed to the UK by Isis. He said: “The idea that we can stand over here and it will not affect us is not credible.” He was also applauded when he said: “We should not rule anything in or anything out.”

MPs also questioned Corbyn about whether they would be allowed to vote with their conscience on Syria, after he told Sky News: “I don’t think a free vote is something we are offering.”

However, several Labour MPs said they did not feel they got a clear answer out of the leader about whether they would be obliged to follow the official position.

Afterwards, a senior source close to the leadership said that it was agreed on Saturday that not allowing a free vote was “the direction of travel and the intention”.

But another aide said the party “cannot decide anything like whipping until we see what proposals might be brought”.

John Mann, one of Corbyn’s strongest critics, reportedly spotted the Labour party’s director of communications Seumas Milne sending a text – raising concerns that Benn’s remarks had gone beyond the “Saturday agreement”.

This refers to a meeting held this Saturday between Corbyn, Benn, the shadow lord chancellor Lord Falconer and the shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle. They agreed that the focus should be on supporting a political settlement in Syria. But they agreed not to close off military options.

One Labour MP said: “It is utterly unsustainable to have the leader of the Labour party and the shadow foreign secretary setting out completely different positions.”

Labour sources insisted that the Saturday agreement remains in place.

The source added that some had raised concerns. “A small minority at successive meetings has tried to express themselves volubly,” they said.

“I don’t think that’s about the leadership of the party being shouted down by the mainstream of the party.”

The Labour leader, who firmly opposes extending UK airstrikes against Isis to Syria, had earlier declined to be drawn on whether he would ever support military action against Islamic extremists.

Corbyn told the BBC: “Well I’m not saying I would or I wouldn’t – I’m saying it’s a hypothetical question at this stage. My view is we have to review our foreign policy, review the situation going on in the region and listen to words put forward by [Barack] Obama and [UN secretary general] Ban Ki-moon.

“They made some very wise comments at the weekend. There has, in the end, to be a political solution to it, you seem to be trying to move the question solely on to military action. I think there are other actions that can be taken as well.”

Downing Street had all but abandoned efforts to get consensus to extend its bombing of Isis from Iraq to Syria. But in the wake of the Paris attacks, a number of Conservatives and Labour MPs have urged David Cameron to make more effort to spell out his case and win round parliamentarians to his point of view.

Some Conservatives are even calling on him to take action without parliamentary approval – something Cameron has ruled out if it is premeditated.

Liam Fox, the former Tory defence secretary, said he thought it damaged the UK’s reputation not to join other western countries in bombing Isis in Syria.

He added: “I’ve argued, including in the Commons, that if it’s necessary for national security, the government should act and then explain it to parliament, but we seem to have developed this convention, really since the Iraq war, that parliament needs to be consulted before we take military action.

“I don’t believe that’s constitutionally correct. I don’t believe it’s necessary, but it seems to be the convention that we have adopted.”

Powered by article was written by Rowena Mason and Nicholas Watt, for The Guardian on Monday 16th November 2015 22.19 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010