Labour MPs have had plenty of opportunities over the past few weeks to look miserable. But today the party looked its most miserable ever as Jeremy Corbyn responded to David Cameron’s statement on the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Even the frontbenchers, particularly Tom Watson, looked unhappy. Andy Burnham looked even more doleful than usual. On the backbenches, MPs such as Dan Jarvis and Caroline Flint wore masks of agony. Chris Leslie had his arms crossed defensively, looking miserable. Diane Abbott appeared to be a little snoozy. Helen Goodman was slumped in her seat in what appeared to be despair. Labourites afterwards described the response as ‘poor’.
It was poor: Corbyn managed to spend the opening section responding to a different statement on policing, not the one the Commons had just heard. He criticised the government’s plans to cut the police before complaining about what had been left out of the review: inequality, poverty, disease, human rights abuses, climate change and water and food security, or indeed the flow of arms and illicit funds. Tory MPs were chuckling at this point, and Corbyn broke off to scold them, which may have helped him to look a little more authoritative than he was (something I look at in my Times column today), but the truth was that he’d lost the House.
Some of his demands showed what one Labour MP who I spoke to afterwards described as a ‘refusal to engage with the strategic questions’. This quote sums the Labour leader’s more peripheral approach up nicely:
‘We have highly professional and experienced diplomats, some of the best in the world, as well as world-class peace and conflict research academics. Does he not agree that the severe cut in the Foreign Office budget is clear evidence of his government’s determination to sacrifice our place in the world on the altar of misplaced austerity? Will he commit to a human rights adviser in every embassy?’
It was easy for Cameron to bat away that point about human rights advisers by saying this is what ambassadors should do. As James said, the Prime Minister was brutal in his riposte to Jeremy Corbyn, but he was still charming to Labour backbenchers, which makes sense given he needs their support. He repeatedly told the Commons that he didn’t want to rush anyone into making their decisions, but from the words that many of those Labour MPs who did mention Syria used, it seems a good number of them have already decided that they will support action, or at least that they’re very open to being persuaded.
Other backbenchers tried to scrutinise the statement itself, clearly feeling that Corbyn had failed to do it sufficiently (though he did ask questions about defence capability, to be fair to him).
But the effect of today’s Labour response was to let the government get away with it. We’re not even sure what it is, because Labour wasn’t able to articulate that. The press can pick over the SDSR, and perhaps Maria Eagle will offer greater wisdom and detail in the coming days, but the official opposition didn’t do its job today.
The one consolation might be that with debate organised by the SNP on Trident tomorrow, the spending review and autumn statement on Wednesday and David Cameron’s Syria statement on Thursday, today might not be the most miserable day of this week for Labour.