Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, has weighed in behind the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, in opposition to Jeremy Corbyn over airstrikes in Syria, arguing that the security threat of Isis needs to be dealt with by military action.
Watson said he agreed with the assessment of Benn, who has said it is “very important we play our part” in taking action against Isis.
Stressing that he, like Corbyn, had been elected by the party, Watson said: “The shadow cabinet had a long debate about how we can support the prime minister in his attempts to keep the country secure, and Hilary Benn gave a very clear explanation that he thinks there is an imminent security threat to the UK and I agree with him on this, but we will come to our decision on Monday with our colleagues over the weekend and we’ll inform you on Monday.”
Despite being at odds with their party leader, both Benn and Watson dismissed the idea that they would resign over the matter, arguing that it would not come to that.
At the same time, David Cameron has stepped up his efforts to win round Labour MPs to support military action, appealing to them directly to “do the right thing” and vote on the basis of the arguments.
It is understood that some shadow cabinet ministers are now seeking briefings with Whitehall security officials independently from the leadership, and Downing Street said it was “happy to provide” such sessions for anyone who wanted one.
Watson said the party had asked for clarification from No 10 about some aspects of the government’s proposals, including the idea that there are 70,000 ground troops available in Syria to secure territory currently held by Isis.
He said: “This is about deciding the best course of action to keep our country safe to deal with the security threat and to support our allies around the world who have a declaration from the United Nations that we need to deal with the Isis network.”
Some shadow cabinet ministers supportive of bombing Syria have suggested it could be possible to outvote Corbyn to form a collective position in favour of the government’s proposals. However, it is difficult to see how this could happen given that Corbyn has the power to sack rebellious members of his team.
Earlier, Benn said he was clear that the UK needed to take effective action against Isis, and every member of parliament needed to come to his or her own conclusion about whether that was right. “I’m not going to resign because I am doing my job as shadow foreign secretary,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Pressed again on BBC1’s Breakfast programme, Benn said: “I’m going to carry on doing my job as the shadow foreign secretary, which is to speak out about what I think the right thing to do is. I’m not planning to resign from anything. It may well be we end up in the position of having a free vote.”
Benn’s stance effectively challenges Corbyn to allow members of the shadow cabinet to vote with their conscience or remove him and other rebels from their posts.
At a difficult meeting on Thursday, about half the shadow cabinet – including Benn, Watson, Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary, Lord Falconer, the shadow lord chancellor, and others – made clear they were minded to back the government’s case for extending airstrikes when it is put to a vote in the Commons next week.
Jon Trickett, the shadow communities secretary, Diane Abbott, shadow international development secretary, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, Nia Griffith, the shadow Welsh secretary, and John Cryer, chair of the parliamentary party, are all against Cameron’s plan.
Others including the former leadership contenders Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham are understood to be undecided. A source close to Burnham, the shadow home secretary, said he was yet to be convinced but would be reflecting on the options over the weekend. Kate Green, the shadow women’s and equalities minister, released a statement saying she was consulting constituents and holding drop-in sessions to listen to the concerns of local people.
Over the weekend Labour MPs are expected to come under some pressure from their local members not to vote for bombing Syria. Corbyn himself has written to them saying: “I do not believe the prime minister’s current proposal for airstrikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it.”
Shadow cabinet ministers agreed to sound out their constituents over the weekend before coming to a final decision on their positions. In a significant development, Momentum, the grassroots movement of Corbyn supporters, launched a web page to help its supporters lobby their MPs against bombing Syria.
From the other side, the prime minister is trying to add to pressure on Labour MPs to vote in favour of extending the bombing campaign. Speaking in Malta, where he is attending the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, Cameron said: “I believe there is a compelling case to take the effective action to keep our country safe.
“I thought many members of parliament on all sides of the House of Commons yesterday agreed there was a compelling case, so I would urge all of them to vote on the basis of the arguments for effective action on a compelling case to keep our country safe. Vote on those arguments and we can do the right thing.”
Dissent among other Labour MPs was beginning to emerge more openly on Friday, suggesting Corbyn could face a tough meeting of the parliamentary party on Monday evening. Two former ministers, Fiona Mactaggart and John Spellar, even suggested that Corbyn himself should step down.
Mactaggart, a former Home Office minister, who is likely to oppose airstrikes, told BBC Berkshire she thought it was a “sensible strategy” for Corbyn to resign, as the “division at the moment is causing real problems”.
She said: “I think it probably is unsustainable. The problem is that my party doesn’t have the hunger for power that the Conservative party does. The Conservative party is good at getting rid of leaders that aren’t going to lead the party to victory. My party isn’t.”
Asked about speculation of resignations, John Spellar, another backbencher and former defence minister, said: “If anyone should resign over this it should be Jeremy Corbyn.”
The former defence minister disputed the interpretation of those who say the UN resolution was not clear authorisation for military action against Isis. Spellar said: “Momentum and the tiny Trots in their Corbyn bunker seem to think they know better than socialist France, radical Venezuela, the Russian regime and Obama’s Democrats as well as Britain’s Conservatives. It was not just the P5 who signed the UN resolution but the whole council.”
McDonnell struck a conciliatory tone on Twitter, saying: “On Syria, can everyone calm down. We’re all simply working through the issues & coming to a final decision. Don’t mistake democracy for division.”
Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor and an ally of Corbyn, said he thought there would have to be a free vote, adding: “You can’t force people to vote to kill other people or not to vote to kill them.”
Downing Street plans to table a vote in the Commons next week. 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, has 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.
Meanwhile, a senior Corbyn aide who suggested during May’s general election that people should vote for a Class War candidate has been let off with a warning by Labour’s ruling body.
Andrew Fisher faced calls for his expulsion from the party over the post on Twitter, in which he urged people not to support the Labour moderate Emily Benn in Croydon South. He has previously apologised and insisted he was “misinterpreted”, and Corbyn was said to have “full confidence” in him.
Fisher, who has since deleted his Twitter account, also reportedly posted messages attacking the former leader Ed Miliband’s front bench and welcoming the former shadow chancellor Ed Balls losing his seat.
A Labour party spokeswoman said the ruling national executive committee had completed its inquiry into Fisher, senior policy adviser to the leader. “Andrew Fisher has been issued with an NEC warning and his suspension has been lifted with immediate effect,” the spokeswoman said.
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Daniel Boffey, for theguardian.com on Friday 27th November 2015 15.33 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010