The revolt of the shadow cabinet was unexpectedly bruising for Corbyn, given that he had already decided to give them a free vote to avoid a mass walkout.
The Labour leader had seemed in a strong position at the beginning of the day, having spent the weekend asserting his authority over the parliamentary party by stressing his mandate from the membership. His measured appearances on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, explaining the holes in David Cameron’s case for military action, appeared to be convincing Labour MPs that the crucial arguments had not been made.
External pressure was piled on by activists from Momentum, the grassroots group of Corbyn supporters, followed by the trade unions Unite and Unison, which urged parliamentarians to think again before backing airstrikes.
Corbyn’s final card to play was a survey of members, carried out over the weekend. The results were published just before 1pm on Monday, an hour before the crucial shadow cabinet meeting, showing 75% of those who responded in a sample of 1,900 were against the strikes. By this time, Corbyn had also finally struck an agreement with Tom Watson, the deputy leader, to offer a free vote to MPs as long as Labour party policy was clearly opposed to strikes.
He would then push for a delay to the government’s vote, allowing for a two-day debate, in a move aimed at winning over MPs who were feeling rushed into a decision. At the beginning of the meeting, held in the leader’s offices at Westminster at 2pm, there was confidence that his position would be accepted by the shadow cabinet. But this did not play out as planned.
In the often tense encounter, which lasted for nearly two hours, Corbyn’s handling of the timing and strategy over the vote was repeatedly attacked. By the end, phrases such as “deplorable”, “lack of respect”, “never been so ashamed” and “embarrassing” had been deployed by some of those present.
There was much unhappiness about briefings to the media and that the polling of members was released so shortly before the meeting. Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, who is not convinced about airstrikes, used some of the strongest rhetoric as he said he refused to be part of a “sham shadow cabinet”.
Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, warned that he would speak in favour of strikes from the backbenches if denied an opportunity to put his views across as a frontbencher. Jonathan Ashworth, shadow minister without portfolio and a member of the party’s national executive committee, was adamant that the position agreed at conference – that Labour could support military action with the clear and unambiguous backing of the UN – could not be changed.
Diane Abbott, the shadow international development secretary, and Jon Trickett, shadow communities secretary, both spoke up in favour of making it clear that Labour policy was against bombing. A decision was finally reached after protracted wrangling.
Corbyn had not only agreed to hold a free vote but Labour policy would be unchanged. This left Corbyn able to open the debate by making the case against bombing and Benn making the case for airstrikes at the end.
The shadow cabinet quickly scuttled past a mob of hacks waiting for news in the atrium of Portcullis House, where MPs go for coffee and gossip. Benn escaped via a back exit. It was left to a senior Labour source to explain the climbdown, acknowledging the arrangement was “obviously unusual”.
He said: “But I think people will see it as something that reflects divisions in the county about a very serious issue ... Jeremy will be speaking for majority Labour opinion, on the basis of Labour party policy and as the elected leader of the Labour party with a landslide no previous leader has enjoyed.”
A statement was released confirming a free vote would be held and Downing Street would be pressed for a delay, but containing no mention of the debate about the official policy. The next test for Corbyn was the 6pm meeting of the whole parliamentary party, which was no more comfortable for the Labour leader.
During that ordeal, which also lasted almost two hours, there was particular anger about the intervention of the Unite boss, Len McCluskey, who warned that defiant MPs were signing their own political obituaries, and comments by the former London mayor Ken Livingstone blaming Tony Blair’s Iraq intervention for the 7/7 bombings.
Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the room that they could not unite the party if the leader’s office was seeking to divide it, while David Winnick, a veteran backbencher, laid into the Momentum activists, saying that the Corbyn-supporting faction were creating a party within a party.
He said there was an “unacceptable” shakedown of MPs going on. But not everyone was unhappy with the level of dissent and division. One Labour veteran leaving the meeting said he had found it “uplifting” precisely because of the very ferocity of the attacks on Corbyn.
A Labour aide said afterwards: “It was always going to be a bumpy ride.”
Jack Dromey, the MP for Birmingham Erdington who is married to Harriet
Harman, made a particularly strident intervention on Livingstone,
warning that Corbyn cannot afford to be “mealy mouthed on national
security”. Kevan Jones, the shadow defence minister who Livingstone suggested
should get psychiatric help after he made critical remarks, told Corbyn his promise of straight, honest politics “lies in tatters”.
Another significant contribution was made by former leadership contender Yvette Cooper, who made similar comments to Beckett accusing Corbyn’s supporters of trying to divide the party. Sources present at the meeting said it was the “angriest” attempt by MPs to criticise his approach and tactics since becoming leader.
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