Philip Hammond has moved to quell a row with the Labour party after David Cameron warned Tory MPs against voting alongside “Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers” in a Commons debate on military action in Syria.
As Labour accused the prime minister of making a “contemptible and desperate slur”, the foreign secretary moved to mend fences by saying that Corbyn’s views on the use of military force were sincerely held.
The row erupted before Wednesday’s scheduled 10-and-a-half-hour House of Commons debate on whether to authorise the RAF to extend its airstrikes against Islamic State targets from Iraq to Syria. The prime minister will open the debate at 11.30am. Corbyn will respond to the prime minister at the start of the debate that will continue until 10pm, when two votes are expected to be held.
The first vote is likely to be on a cross-party amendment led by the SNP, signed by 110 MPs, which “declines to authorise military action in Syria”. If, as expected, the amendment fails, then a vote will be held on the government motion.
Downing Street is confident that the prime minister will prevail amid signs that fewer than 20 Tory MPs will rebel against the prime minister. Between 30 to 40 Labour MPs, and possibly as many as 60, are expected to vote with the government along with the 16 Liberal Democrat and DUP MPs. The 54 SNP MPs, plus two elected SNP MPs who have had their party whip withdrawn, will vote against the airstrikes along with the bulk of the Labour party.
The prime minister appealed to Conservative MPs to give him an overall parliamentary majority in favour of military action in Syria by warning them against voting alongside “Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.
“You should not be walking through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers,” the prime minister reportedly told a meeting of the 1922 committee in a bid to step up the pressure on his own rebels as he seeks win the vote solely with the support of Conservative MPs.
Labour denounced the prime minister’s attack on Corbyn. A Labour spokesman said: “It is a contemptible and desperate slur which demeans his office. He clearly realises he has failed to make a convincing case for military action in Syria and opinion is shifting away from him.”
Amid fears that the prime minister’s remarks would leave Labour supporters of the airstrikes dangerously exposed, the party’s deputy leader called on Cameron to apologise.
Tom Watson, a supporter of airstrikes who led the moves behind the scenes in the shadow cabinet to persuade Corbyn to allow Labour MPs to have a free vote, said: “David Cameron’s comment trivialises the decision MPs have to make. MPs from all parties are treating that decision with the seriousness it deserves. The prime minister should retract and apologise for these remarks, which are disrespectful to those MPs who have a different view to him.”
Hammond tried to calm the row by saying that Corbyn’s views were sincerely held. “I recognise that in the case of somebody like Jeremy Corbyn the objection to military action of any kind in any circumstances is sincerely held,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
The foreign secretary declined to apologise on behalf of the prime minister and said that his remarks appeared to be aimed at Ken Livingstone, who said last week that Tony Blair was to blame for the 52 deaths in the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 after ignoring warnings that the invasion of Iraq would provoke terrorists.
Hammond said: “I think the prime minister – I wasn’t in the room at the time when he apparently made them – had in mind [when he made the comments] some high-profile figures like Ken Livingstone, who have made some very, very unwise comments over the last week or so which could certainly be interpreted in that way.”
The prime minister’s remarks, echoing an attack on Corbyn at the Tory conference in October, were confirmed to the Guardian by a senior MP who attended the meeting and came as the Labour leader accused Cameron of adopting a “bomb first, talk later” approach.
In a Guardian article, Corbyn asks Labour MPs to think of the “terrible consequences” of the wars in the Middle East over the past 14 years.
“David Cameron … knows that opposition to his ill-thought-out rush to war is growing,” Corbyn writes. “On planning, strategy, ground troops, diplomacy, the terrorist threat, refugees and civilian casualties, it’s become increasingly clear the prime minister’s proposal simply doesn’t stack up.
“Cameron’s approach is bomb first, talk later. But instead of adding British bombs to the others now raining down on Syria, what’s needed is an acceleration of the peace talks in Vienna.”
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 2nd December 2015 09.50 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010