December 3: UK on brink of Syria airstrikes

PM wins the argument – for now

NO DECISIONS of Parliament are more onerous than those which pertain to Britain’s national security – or the deployment of the Armed Forces in a foreign conflict. As such, it is all the more regrettable that a fractious House of Commons debate on whether to extend the scope of RAF airstrikes against Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, to Syria could not have been conducted in a more statesmanlike and dignified manner.

It was not helped by the Government’s business managers imposing a 10 and a half hour time limit when no fewer than 157 backbenchers had expressed a desire to speak. Given the issue’s importance, and the number of occasions when proceedings are terminated early because of a lack of business, a two-day debate – as requested – would have signalled Parliament’s resolve to consider the matter in full and put into practice lessons learned from the Iraq invasion.

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This was then compounded by the furore after David Cameron branded opponents of military intervention in this instance as “terrorist sympathisers” – a needless jibe against Jeremy Corbyn was interpreted as a slur against the character of many respected politicians. That the PM chose not to apologise for the offence caused, even when asked to do so by MPs supportive of his position, was unbecoming of him and detracted from the strength of his case for war.

And then there was Mr Corbyn whose speech was not helped by sustained and hostile heckling from Tory MPs. Leaving aside the Labour leader’s principled opposition to war, which remains his prerogative, his reluctance to answer the interventions posed by backbenchers was disrespectful when he has sought to make PMQs more constructive by posing the questions of party activists. He cannot have it both ways.

Far from restoring confidence in the Commons, the discourteous tone of the debate before backbenchers spoke more respectfully, and succinctly, actually managed to bring politics into disrepute, and polarise views still further, rather than allowing a broader consensus to be reached on how best to counter this evil death cult and the threat that it poses to the liberty of all following atrocities like the slaughter of British holiday-makers in Tunisia and the more recent bloodbath in Paris.

Unlike the flawed decision-making which preceded the invasion of Iraq, a strategic error which continues to haunt UK foreign policy, Mr Cameron’s approach is legitimate in the eyes of international law – France, one of Britain’s closest allies, requested assistance in its painful hour of need and the United Nations Security Council authorised member states “to take all necessary measures” to eradicate Daesh. Even Russia concurred.

Amid the hullabaloo, the Prime Minister did make three compelling points. First, RAF airstrikes in neighbouring Iraq have reduced the land under Daesh’s sphere of influence by 30 per cent since MPs authorised such action. Second, the Syrian town of Raqqa has been identified by the intelligence agencies as the stronghold from where Daesh is plotting appalling attacks against Britain – it would be foolhardy to ignore this, Third, inaction will make it even harder for the Syrian Free Army, and other tribes, to muster sufficient numbers to fend off not only this death cult but to also overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime.

Moving forward, David Cameron must use this hard-won Commons mandate wisely. The public – and those Labour grandees who defied Mr Corbyn to argue in favour of intervention, such as Hilary Benn, who gave an electrifying and persuasive speech, Alan Johnson, Yvette Cooper and Dan Jarvis – will be unforgiving if the Government chooses to launch airstrikes indiscriminately. Any action needs to protect, rather than undermine, Britain’s national security. That remains the most important point of all.

Safe in his hands? Jeremy Hunt must publish NHS data

WHY the secrecy? If the National Health Service is performing at its optimum, why has Leeds-based NHS England decided to halt the publication of weekly data outlining the performance of hospitals this winter? It says it does not want any sudden fluctuations in waiting times being misinterpreted, and that it would be far more preferable to publish the relevant information on a monthly basis.

However, with Yorkshire’s hospitals bedevilled by bed-blocking, staff shortages and major financial challenges, this smacks of health chiefs attempting to absolve themselves of responsibility for longer waiting times and so on. Their actions demand weekly scrutiny. If Jeremy Hunt believes the NHS is safe in his hands, the Health Secretary will reverse this decision so he, too, can stand up and be counted for the treatment given to patients on his watch.