The biggest problem with Labour’s furious and seemingly endless infighting is that it is preventing the party from doing its job of scrutinising the government. The Shadow Cabinet are largely scrutinising their leader and one another, which makes it easier for David Cameron to be vague about certain aspects of his case for war. But today, Tom Watson has written to the Prime Minister demanding a delay in the vote and clarity on two key points. They are:
1. The detail behind Cameron’s claim that there are ‘approximately 70,000 opposition figures on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups’.
2. A timeline for peace and arrangements for a lasting political settlement, and an assessment of the Saudi initiative to draw together opposition groups in Syria.
It is significant that Watson is the one sending this letter: he is not opposed to action. Indeed, he writes that he believes ‘there is a compelling case for action based on the direct threat posed by Isil to the United Kingdom and its citizens and to our allies’. After days of scrapping between those who believe there is a compelling case, and those who are convinced there is no case, it is an attempt by the Deputy Leader to suggest that Labour can still unite around important questions on the detail of the Prime Minister’s case while reaching different conclusions about that argument.
Watson’s questions are not at all unreasonable, and those who insist otherwise may need to set out why they are quite so confident. He adds that ‘I do not believe you have given proper time to build consensus. As Jeremy Corbyn has made clear, parliament needs more time to make a considered decision on whether air strikes can take place’. Now, of course, the idea that Corbyn himself needs more time to reach the inevitable conclusion of someone who has spent his life campaigning against western intervention is entirely laughable. But other parliamentarians who are in the ‘compelling case’ camp are keen to hear the answers the Deputy Leader is asking for, and not unreasonably so.
The Corbynite theory is that the longer MPs have to consider intervention, the more of them will peel off into the anti camp. But Cameron does also need to explain why a delay of a week, for instance, would be impossible, given other countries are already bombing targets in Syria.
On a purely political level, though, what this letter also suggests is that Tom Watson is now trying to act as the more authoritative Opposition figure, because the Leader can no longer do this. Watch this space.