It’s back to school day in Westminster and one of the first items on the agenda will be David Cameron’s announcement on accepting more Syrian refugees. Exactly how many extra asylum seekers Britain will take in is, according to the Sunday Times, likely to be between 10,000 and 20,000.
Someone who is particularly pleased with this is Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary and Labour leadership contender. Cooper first called for 10,000 refugees in a speech on the crisis last week and on the Today programme, she welcomed the PM’s response but urged him to do as much as possible:
‘That would be really helpful if he does…you know I’ve called for it to be 10,000 in the past because that would be ten refugee families for every city, ten for every county. But look, we should do as much as we can to help. It’s really important that Britain doesn’t turn its back on what is going to be the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. So I really hope this figure of about 15,000 is right.’
But Cooper avoided answering what will likely become today’s big question: would she (and Labour) back more military action in Syria. She batted away the question multiple times, stating it depends on what the government is proposing to do:
‘I think when it’s something as serious as military intervention, you have to look at what the government is proposing because too often in the past…we have had a history of past interventions which have been well intentioned but have not had clear objectives.’
If Cameron needed an alternative take, there was another influential voice on Today who was happy to make the case for military action. The former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said United Nations ‘safe heavens’ should be constructed in Syria, which would require a significant military presence to protect them, possibly from Britain:
‘Well ideally, Britain would not be involved in putting troops on the ground but we should be willing to consider that. And bear in mind, this is not the offensive action by troops that people in Britain sometimes recoil from. It is a defensive action. It would need to be done under the United Nations charter, probably with a chapter seven mandate which enables them to defend themselves.’
Although Mitchell argued ‘Britain should be in the lead’, pointing out ‘we have huge diplomatic assets’, it’s unlikely that Cameron will step forward with such an ambitious programme today. Yet all the signs suggest Cameron will don his statesman hat — one he tends to wear well. While Labour enters the final few days of its leadership contest, the Prime Minister will be seen as the one ‘getting things done’, whether it’s taking in more refugees or beginning to make the case for military action. Just the image the Conservatives want to project.