Jeremy Corbyn's grip weakens on deeply divided Labour party following Syria vote

He may have lost the battle on bombing Syria, but Jeremy Corbyn has dug-in for long term trench warfare over Labour's soul, writes Shaun Connolly
Jeremy Corbyn's grip weakens on deeply divided Labour party following Syria vote

British bombing of Syria is likely to have little impact on the Islamic State leadership, but the push for military action has already seriously degraded the state of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party.

The life-long pacifist, former head of the Stop the War Coalition, and avowed republican who now finds himself surprise leader of what is officially known as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is actually at the head of two very different parties - the grass roots one which overwhelmingly elected him, and the parliamentary one which overwhelmingly distrusts him.

Only the threat of an open revolt and mass exodus from the shadow cabinet forced Mr Corbyn to head-off a full blown crisis by ceeding credibility in allowing his MPs a free vote in Wednesday's Common's debate on bombing IS which will produce the extraordinary sight of him arguing against the war while his foreign affairs spokesperson - and likely successor - Hilary Benn publicly backs military action.

With some 100 Labour MPs expected to ignore official party policy and vote with David Cameron on the issue, it represents a triple victory for the Conservative prime minister.

It restores added swagger to Mr Cameron on the international stage, avenges the defeat of his 2013 bid to bomb Syrian president Assad's forces at the hands of Labour's former leader Ed Miliband, and further weakens Mr Corbyn's grip on his deeply divided party.

Still reeling from the sheer scale of its shock defeat in the May general election, Labour members rejected the robotic Blairite-light candidates on offer in the summer leadership election and instead took a decisive leap to the left elevating Mr Corbyn to power with 59% of the vote, but very little backing among MPs.

A shaky start which saw him refuse to sing the national anthem at a memorial for the war dead, calmed through the Autumn as an uneasy truce developed between Mr Corbyn and the parliamentary old guard plotting to oust him, but that was blown apart by the terror strikes on Paris which again called his judgement into serious question.

In the days before the massacre, Mr Corbyn was already on the back foot over his reaction to the killing of notorious IS beheader Jahidi John in a drone strike.

Mr Corbyn's insistence that he would rather that the poster boy for IS slaughter had been arrested drew widespread ridicule.

As one Labour shadows minister told The Irish Examiner: "I'm sure if we had sent a squad car into downtown Raqqa to pick him up, he would have just muttered “It's a fair cop, guv”, and got in the back of the car, no worries. Corbyn just doesn't live in the real world."

This image of being soft on security was then compounded when in the aftermath of the Paris attacks Mr Corbyn insisted he was "not happy" about police adopting a shoot to kill policy against terrorists if a similar wave of murderous mayhem was unleashed on London.

The remarks led to him being shouted down at a rowdy meeting of the parliamentary party and paved the way for his failure to impose his will over the Syrian air strikes.

But while the Corbynistas may be in retreat for now, they are already planning battle lines for the next offensive as they believe the Syria bombardment will merely add to the ignomy of Britain's unhappy recent involvement in the Middle East.

With anti-Corbyn MPs already fearing that the leader's grass roots Momentum faction is really intended as a front operation to take control of local parties and deselect them ahead of the 2020 general election, the words of shadow energy secretary Clive Lewis will only add to their suspicions.

The close Corbyn ally, who was one of only four shadow cabinet members to back the leader on Syria, issued this dark warning: "If there are members of the Parliamentary Labour Party that want to bomb in Syria and vote with the Tories, on their heads be it.

Ultimately if the war in Syria extends, if there’s a conflagration, there are more terrorist atrocities, if the war extends with no end, then obviously we will be looking at who voted for this, and when the blame’s apportioned, it’s their fault."

Though a welcome byproduct of bombing, the Labour turmoil is just an added bonus to Mr Cameron as in this perculiar era of what is known as the Corbyn Experiment, the Tories view the Scottish Nationalists and the unelected, and highly unpredictable, House of Lords as the only real opposition they face for the rest of the decade.

Mr Cameron desperately wants to win this vote to repair the real damage done to his standing in Washington by his failure to command the Commons when leader of a coalition in 2013.

That defeat was met with mocking surprise across the Atlantic, exemplified by the New York Daily News front page headline: "The British Aren't Coming!"

British refusal to bomb spooked an already unconvinced American public and forced the Obama administration into a hasty climb-down as a somewhat dubious deal for Assad to hand over his chemical weapons stockpiles was put together instead of military action.

Washington did not forget the problems caused by the Commons and Cameron has been looking for a way to make amends ever since and finally saw his chance with the post-Paris turmoil of Labour.

Now, Mr Corbyn is set to suffer his first major Common's defeat on the eve of his first electoral test in Thursday's Oldham West byelection where UKIP is expected to eat deeply into the traditionally solid Labour vote as the country slips into Brexit mode ahead of next year's In-out EU referendum.

But a defiant Mr Corbyn has put his critics on notice, insisting "I'm going nowhere," but unfortunately for him, polls suggest that under him neither is the party.

He may have lost the battle on bombing Syria, but Mr Corbyn has dug-in for long term trench warfare over Labour's soul.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up