Jeremy Corbyn and the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, have adopted sharply opposing views on UK military action against Islamic State, hours after David Cameron argued it was time to extend bombing to Syria.
The Labour leader wrote to his MPs saying that the prime minister had failed earlier on Thursday to explain how an aerial campaign would protect UK security, setting up an intense debate in the party ahead of an expected Commons vote next week to broaden RAF airstrikes from Iraq to Syria.
“I do not believe the prime minister’s current proposal for airstrikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it,” Corbyn wrote.
That set Corbyn at odds with Benn, who had earlier told a meeting of the shadow cabinet that the arguments in favour of extending the airstrikes were “compelling”.
The shadow foreign secretary, who believes that the prime minister has fulfilled the conditions laid down in a motion passed at the Labour conference on Syria, also contradicted Corbyn in public.
Benn told the BBC: “We have heard compelling arguments both because of the threat to the United Kingdom and also because we are right to have been taking the action that we have in Iraq to support the Iraqi government in trying to repel the invasion from Isil [Isis].”
This weekend, Corbyn will seek to win the approval of the shadow cabinet to oppose an extension of the airstrikes. He is drawing up plans to reach over the heads of his frontbench with an appeal to a parliamentary Labour party meeting on Monday night, after winning the support of just four members of his shadow cabinet at a meeting on Thursday afternoon.
The Labour leader has pulled out of a planned visit to campaign in the Oldham West by-election on Friday in order to be in London focus on building support for his position.
A spokeswoman for the Labour leader said: “Regrettably Jeremy Corbyn is not now visiting Oldham because matters to do with Syria.”
The early skirmishes between supporters of the new leader and the once mainstream former ministers in the shadow cabinet came after the prime minister set out the case for an extension of the airstrikes.
In a lengthy statement, Cameron said the UK was already facing the threat of mass casualties from Isis and argued that Britain could not outsource its security to allies.
The prime minister, who was formally responding to a report by the commons foreign affairs select committee, which had opposed the airstrikes, told MPs: “We have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands right now and we must not shirk our responsibility for security, or hand it to others. Throughout our history, the United Kingdom has stood up to defend our values and our way of life. We can, and we must, do so again.”
Downing Street is planning to table a vote in the commons next week amid signs that the prime minister is assembling a majority. In a sign that a Tory rebellion will be smaller than expected, the chairman of the foreign affairs select committee Crispin Blunt, who rebelled in a vote on military action in August 2013, signalled his support for the airstrikes. No 10 remains nervous about Labour’s position but believes that enough MPs will defy Corbyn to neutralise any remaining Tory rebellion.
The French government took the highly unusual step of expressing the hope that the Royal Air Force “will soon be working side by side with their French counterparts” in taking military action in Syria.
In a sometimes emotional appeal, the French defence minister writes in the Guardian that UK military capabilities would “put additional and extreme pressure on the Isis terror network”. Jean-Yves Le Drian said he wants the RAF “to take the fight to the very heart of Isis, defeating it and making our countries and peoples safer”.
French diplomats have been in touch with Labour frontbenchers to supplement this argument in private. The statement by the French is unlikely to move Corbyn, who unequivocally rejected the appeal by the prime minister.
In his letter, Corbyn said: “In my view, the prime minister has been unable to explain the contribution of additional UK bombing to a comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian civil war, or its likely impact on the threat of terrorist attacks in the UK.”
The Labour leader released his letter after he found himself in a minority at a meeting of the shadow cabinet, where he won the support of four shadow ministers. Corbyn was supported by Diane Abbott, Jon Trickett and Nia Griffith. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, did not speak but he supports the leader.
Corbyn’s supporters said he was not isolated because many shadow ministers said they were conflicted over the airstrikes. But Benn was supported at the shadow cabinet meeting by Tom Watson, the deputy leader, the shadow lord chancellor Charles Falconer, Michael Dugher and Lucy Powell.
A number of shadow ministers believe that the shadow cabinet should impose a three-line whip in favour of military action. But Corbyn is likely to appeal to the PLP if, as expected, he fails to win consensus behind his position at a meeting of the shadow cabinet.
The leader’s camp are also hoping that pressure from the Momentum group – the social movement which grew out of Corbyn’s election – will persuade Labour MPs to back Corbyn on Syria at the meeting of the PLP. Corbyn believes that he enjoys greater support proportionally in the PLP than he does in the shadow cabinet.
If the two sides fail to reach agreement there is a growing expectation that Corbyn will eventually agree to allow Labour MPs to have a free vote. A three-line whip to oppose military action would split the shadow cabinet and lead to resignations.
Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor who is close to Corbyn, suggested there would be a free vote for Labour MPs. He told Question Time on BBC1: “You can’t force people to vote to kill other people or not to vote to kill them. This must be a matter in which people have the freedom to express their own view. I suspect it will be [a free vote].”
Livingstone outlined Corbyn’s strategy in the run-up to the vote. He said: “I don’t think Labour is going to fall apart. We have got to decide whether we have a line or whether we allow a free vote.
“The simple fact is that although the shadow cabinet has quite strong support for bombing, I suspect the parliamentary Labour party is much more divided on that. Over this weekend MPs are going to go back to their constituents; they will be listening to what people say and they will find there is a lot less support out there among the public for simply bombing than there might be in parliament. There’ll be a shadow cabinet meeting on Monday to decide what to do.”
Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary, rallied behind Corbyn. He said: “I believe that no Labour MP should be conned or browbeaten into supporting this incoherent plan, which threatens to involve Britain in its fourth war this century.”
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