“Hard-headed common sense.” This was the phrase Jeremy Corbyn used today to describe his opposition to a government motion seeking Parliamentary approval for air strikes in Syria. David Cameron, meanwhile, described his plan for a bombing campaign against IS as a moral responsibility and asserted that Britain could not leave it to others to act when its own security was at stake and its allies had called on it for help.
Mr. Cameron also announced a new extremism review, which Liberal Democrats are attributing to the lobbying of their new leader, Tim Farron. This and his lengthy explanation of his decision to refer to IS as Daesh, were the only real surprises of a speech that retrod much of the ground covered in a debate on the issue last week. David Cameron described the action as being taken against an “evil” enemy and in defence of British values. It would reduce the threat to people on British streets, he said. In an attempt to mollify opponents, he pointed out that the government’s proposals had been modified following concerns previously raised in the House.
For his part, Mr. Corbyn also said little that will come as a surprise. He said the government lacked a clear strategy, as well as legal authorisation from the UN and dissected the government’s claim that 70,000 fighters in Syria were ready to take on IS if assisted by bombing. He urged the government to do more to push for a negotiated peace and said that only then could IS be dealt with by the Syrian people. He also used his Parliamentary tactic of reading out a letter from a member of the public whose family lived in an IS-controlled town and feared for their safety if bombs started falling.
Neither party leader really distinguished themselves. In the Prime Minister’s case, this was somewhat self-inflicted, as his speech was peppered with interventions calling on him to apologise for using the phrase “terrorist sympathisers” to describe those who opposed air strikes. He repeatedly refused to do so, thereby making that the news story of the first period of the debate.
When Jeremy Corbyn rose, it was with the knowledge that many of his own MPs most likely support the government, and that those abiding by the official Labour position may actually be in the minority when the party’s members vote later tonight. This was reflected by the men sat either side of him. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hillary Benn, sat with a poker face for much of the speech, although he did shake his head when his leader claimed the UN authorisation was insufficient to make air strikes legal. To the leader’s right, the face of Tom Watson, the party’s Deputy Leader, was in constant motion, displaying a new expression every few seconds.
One striking aspect of the debate was its tone. In 2003, when the House of Commons debated whether or not to invade Iraq, the mood of the House was very different. It was solemn and sober, with honourable members constantly referring to their respect for those with whom they disagreed. However, from the moment Jeremy Corbyn rose, hostile noises and shouting emerged from the government benches. This only increased when he refused to take further interventions from other MPs. The Speaker, John Bercow, was forced to intervene on more than one occasion to call for order and respect for the conventions of the House.
Once the two main party leaders stopped speaking, many MPs departed and the mood of the chamber changed. Sir Alan Duncan, who spoke immediately after Mr. Corbyn, was heard in relative silence, as was Angus Robertson, the leader of the SNP, who is also against air strikes.
The debate will close around ten in the evening, and the vote will take place soon after. The government is expected to win, but there will be tension as the extent of the rift in the Labour Party is exposed. In 2003, the position of the Prime Minister was at stake. That is not the case for David Cameron, who has already lost one vote on Syria due to Labour opposition and delayed calling a vote until he was sure he could win it. For Jeremy Corbyn, however, the size of the vote against him will lead to immediate scrutiny of his position and calls for resignation. What happens next, within Labour and in Syria, is anybody’s guess.