JEREMY Corbyn is facing a dramatic showdown with his own shadow cabinet after insisting he has the final decision on whether Labour opposes airstrikes in Syria.
The leader warned MPs must listen to the “voice” of the party membership, who overwhelmingly elected him, after delivering an impassioned critique of David Cameron’s case for attacking Islamic State (IS) in its heartlands.
The prime minister’s position is also under pressure with defence secretary Michael Fallon yesterday(SUN) acknowledging the Government does “not yet” have a guaranteed majority backing military action.
But the focus is likely to be on Labour today(MON) with the shadow cabinet meeting due to be followed by a potentially explosive gathering of the Parliamentary party. Divisions within the party on Syria have helped ferment discontent among some opposition MPs over Mr Corbyn’s leadership with a substantial number likely to rebel if he orders a whipped vote against airstrikes.
Veteran Sheffield MP Clive Betts is one of a number of Labour MPs, including shadow chancellor John McDonnell, calling for a free vote on the issue.
Mr Betts, who represents Sheffield South East, said he hadn’t made his mind up whether to back airstrikes and added the Government should postpone calling a Commons vote beyond this week to allow for more briefings and scrutiny of the proposed action.
He said: “In principle I’m not against taking military action which would have to be taken to tackle ISIL. It’s a question of whether, tactically, bombing is going to be effective.”
Along with many critics of the proposals, Mr Betts questioned whether there was a potential ground force capable of tackling the jihadist group. Mr Cameron has claimed there are 70,000 moderate Syrian fighters who could fulfil the role.
Mr Corbyn also “seriously questioned” the claim and voiced doubts about their “loyalties”.
Bombing IS targets in Syria would be a “distraction from the political process” to end the civil war, and would lead to civilian casualties, he insisted.
Asked if there was any chance party divisions could force his resignation, Mr Corbyn said: “I’m not going anywhere. I am enjoying every moment of it.”
Len McCluskey, general secretary of the powerful Unite union, criticised some Labour MPs for exploiting the row over bombing Syria in a “sickening” effort to get rid of the leader.
He said the issue was being used as the “thin edge to stage a coup” - and insisted his union would fight “all the way” to prevent the tactic working.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said he had been briefing Labour MPs on military action all week but asked whether the Government had the number of votes required, he said: “Not yet, we’re working at it and we need to keep working at it because there are lots of questions about this, you shouldn’t extend military operations lightly, there are legitimate questions to answer and we’re doing our best to answer them.”
Pressed on the nature of the 70,000-strong moderate force in Syria, Mr Fallon insisted: “We do know who they are and this is an independent joint intelligence committee assessment, it’s not ministers making this figure, it’s their assessment and it’s supported by academics.”
Shadow Justice Secretary Lord Falconer confirmed there were “significant differences” within the shadow cabinet and said frontbenchers should not be “forced” to resign by the imposition of a whip.