Syria: Five political reflections on yesterday’s vote in the Commons

Oli Waghorn, former Special Adviser to ex-secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox, shares his insight on the political fallout from yesterday's vote in the Commons on extending air strikes to Syria.

1. Jeremy Corbyn may win the political war – Much of yesterday’s debate hinged on whether UK action would reduce or increase risk to the UK, as if the risk from Daesh were binary. As the PM was at pains to point out, UK Security Services have already prevented 7 attacks in the UK this year. The fact is the UK is at daily risk, and events in Paris could have, and may still occur here. For Corbyn though having lost the vote there remains little additional downside. His vote against war will not be remembered in the years to come if Daesh is defeated, but should they strike the UK, Corbyn’s warnings will ring-true with the UK public, even though the vote last night will have made no appreciable change to the intent of Daesh to destroy us.

2. When one man can make a difference – In many respects the hardest decision for Jeremy Corbyn yesterday was not whether or not to vote for war, but whether to whip his own party to follow his line. The international and domestic political risk to the PM of staging and losing a second vote on action in Syria would have been devastating, and a whipped Labour party would have stopped the Government from tabling the motion. It is a credit to Corbyn that, despite his own cast-iron conviction towards peace, he allowed a free vote that he must have known would lead to war.

3. A debate is not always a debate – Whilst some MPs remained open-minded throughout the debate, and Labour honourably allowed a free vote, it was disappointing that the SNP remained irreconcilable throughout. Sadly no answer from the Prime Minister on the issues that concerned the SNP would have persuaded them to alter their position. It’s odd then why they wasted the time to enter the chamber at all if they were not prepared to enter a debate with an open mind. Like Corbyn, they could well end up as political winners, but their intransigence seems deeply flawed.

4. The political utility of military force – The MoD have always regarded themselves as a tool of foreign policy – a physical means to a political end. There is a point though where the nature of force can become not just an actor of war, but a precipitator to it. It was interesting to note how strong an emphasis was placed on UK technology, such as the Brimstone missile and the Raptor targeting pod, in helping build the case for war. This should be a continual point of reference to industry when making the case for continued investment in science and technology. It should also act as a salutary lessen to policy makers that defence investment gives you political choice.

5. The division within Labour is deep and raw – It was not the number of rebels – reduced perhaps by the unreasonable personal political pressure they have been under over recent weeks – but the breadth and fervour of their opposition that should alarm Corbyn. For me, as compelling as Hillary Benn’s speech from the dispatch box undoubtedly was, it was Margaret Beckett who gave the most chilling condemnation of appeasement. In a thinly veiled attack on Corbyn, Alan Johnson declared “I wish I had the self-righteous certitude of our finger jabbing representatives of our new and kinder type of politics”. These seasoned Labour veterans were joined by fresh faces from the 2015 intake, members of the Shadow Cabinet and would-be leadership contenders. Whilst Corbyn continues to enjoy unparalleled support from Labour supporters, he now seems irrevocably at odds with large parts of his own parliamentary party.

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