By the time Jeremy Corbyn got to his feet in today’s debate on action in Syria, the House of Commons was in a fractious mood, with interventions from MPs focusing as much on the Labour party as the issue up for debate. The Labour leader did not find much support from his own side, either, with a number of pro-intervention MPs frowning and muttering as he ploughed on with his speech. Hilary Benn appeared to be grinding his teeth during much of the response.
It opened, inevitably, with a man who could quite reasonably be described as a ‘terrorist sympathiser’, given his dealings with the IRA and his ‘friends’ in Hamas, complaining about the Prime Minister’s comments last night. Those comments were ill-judged: Corbyn and John McDonnell may well deserve such a label, but they are a pair, not a ‘bunch of terrorist sympathisers’. But this debate was not the time for a debate about Corbyn and McDonnell's questionable approach to certain groups. As Corbyn said, it ‘undermines the seriousness of the deliberations we are having today’.
He also warned repeatedly of the ‘unintended consequences’ of action, arguing that ‘to oppose another reckless and half-baked intervention isn’t pacifism. It’s hard-headed common sense’. But he did not set out the consequences of inaction. He also refused to say if he backed bombing in Iraq, which led to more furious mutters from some behind.
Much of the Labour leader’s speech ran through why he did not think the action was justified on the basis of his party’s policy as agreed at conference. He argued that extending UK bombing was ‘highly unlikely to work’, that the 'UN security council resolution 2249 passed after the Paris atrocities and cited in today’s government motion does not give clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK bombing in Syria. To do so it would have had to be passed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to which the security council couldn’t agree’. UN approval was a key condition set by conference. In conclusion Corbyn said the proposal ‘does not fulfil three out of four conditions laid down in Labour’s conference resolution passed two months ago’.
But at the conclusion of this debate, we will see Hilary Benn setting out a different interpretation of that conference motion and Cameron’s case. What lies between those two speeches will reveal whether Cameron’s comments have really had as much effect on MPs as some argue, not just on the vote itself, but on the quality of debate in the Chamber, which has so far been rather poor.