The day Jeremy Corbyn's leadership withered on the vine

Labour retreat on Syria could spell the beginning of the end for his leadership
Labour retreat on Syria could spell the beginning of the end for his leadership
Adam Bienkov By

Lined up against Parliament's committee room corridor walls, dozens of journalists last night perched outside Labour's PLP meeting desperately trying to hear what was being said inside.

Behind the heavy wooden doors of committee room 14, MPs could be heard heckling their leader for his shambolic handling of Labour's response to Britain's potential involvement in the Syrian war. As the shouts and jeers of Labour backbenchers seeped through the cracks, several hacks shuffled closer to the doors, only to be warned off by guards standing a short distance away. As the meeting continued, a gentle dance developed as the reporters continually edged closer to one of the two entrances, only to be politely edged back again.

Hours earlier, Corbyn had faced a ferocious meeting of his shadow cabinet in which he had been forced to surrender into giving them a free vote on war in Syria.

As he now faced yet more attacks from the wider parliamentary party, one old hand waiting outside remarked that he had never sat outside so many PLP meetings, in all his time in Westminster, as he had since Corbyn became leader. What Corbyn described as the "new politics" had become something of a spectator sport.

Occasionally a Labour politician would emerge from the meeting to issue a word or two to reporters as they walked past. Scenes inside were described as "lively" or "amazing". Occasionally irony was deployed. "United and purposeful" offered one departing MP ruefully, as the sounds of heckles drifted out behind him.

Eventually Lord Mandelson floated Penanggalan-like out of the room. There was immediate excitement in the corridor as almost every waiting journalist followed the master of the dark arts awkwardly down the corridor, eager for an anti-Corbyn quote from a euphemistically titled "Labour grandee" or "senior Labour figure".

Other lesser-known figures also emerged to report that Corbyn's close ally Ken Livingstone had been savaged by several Labour figures over his comments about 7/7 and Tony Blair. John Mann, who recently had his own on-air bust-up with the former mayor, told reporters that Jack Dromey in particular had delivered what was described as a "brutal" attack on Ken, which had been warmly received with "virtual unanimity" by MPs. Indeed sounds of loud applause and banging desks had been heard after Dromey's speech.

Once the meeting finally broke up, Corbyn's chief spokesman Seumas Milne emerged to tell reporters that contrary to everything journalists had just heard with their own ears, there had in fact been "significant support" for the Labour leader among MPs. Remarkably, he denied that Corbyn's full retreat on allowing Labour MPs a free vote on Syria had been a retreat at all. On the contrary, the idea of offering MPs a free vote was actually Corbyn's. In any case, the whole episode had been an example of the "new politics". The "balance was shifting" towards his boss he insisted. Everything was going to plan. Onwards and upwards. Nothing to see here.

And yet as Labour MPs left the committee room, it quickly became clear that everything was very much not going to plan. Partly because of Corbyn's failure to unite his party against the action, Britain was now within days of getting involved in yet another war in the Middle East. The prime minister had announced that MPs would be given just one day's debate on going to war this Wednesday, with British bombs set to rain down on Syrian towns before the end of the week.

The Labour leader, who had spent his entire career opposing British military interventions, was now seemingly incapable of leading his own party against one.

So how did we get to this point? Before going further, it's worth saying that much of the criticism of Corbyn's leadership has been overblown. Contrary to the relentless attacks on him both from the press and his own party, he has actually secured a number of significant victories during his short time in office. Even now there remains potential for his leadership. After years of a bland 'spadocracy' ruling supreme in Westminster, Corbyn's plain-speaking manner offers a refreshing change. There are also many policy areas on which Corbyn's views could potentially chime with the wider public, even if there are some which clearly do not.

But whatever you think of Corbyn's political views, he has stuck with them relentlessly over decades. Unlike some Labour politicians who have drifted from the committed far left to the even more committed hard right, without so much as a blink, Corbyn has stuck to his principles. That is until now.

His decision yesterday to effectively allow British military involvement in the Syrian war, will go down as the biggest defeat of his leadership so far. And it is a defeat that could prove fatal for his leadership.

Public attitudes towards Britain's involvement in Syria are in reality far more nuanced than some commentators suggest. Faced with the recent appalling events in Paris, most people are in favour of some form of military response to Isis. As with 9/11, when the British people see a close ally come under attack, they usually want to stand alongside them one way or another.

But there is far greater public uncertainty about whether the particular action that Cameron is pushing for is the right response and whether it will make the situation both in Syria and at home either more or less safe. After 15 years of truly disastrous British interventions in the Middle East, there is widespread reluctance, to simply repeat exactly the same mistakes again.

Faced with such uncertainty, Corbyn should have taken a much stronger stand against Britain's involvement in Syria. Recently elected on a ticket of withdrawing from foreign wars, the Labour leader had a clear mandate to whip his MPs against launching yet another one. Of course many Labour MPs would still have rebelled and the war may still have gone ahead regardless. Doing so would also undoubtedly have caused a major shadow cabinet split and even outright mutiny among his parliamentary party. But regardless of the outcome, it would have been a strong move which would have been respected by the public. Alternatively, Corbyn could have announced right at the start that he would offer a free vote on the issue as a matter of principle, but would seek to persuade his party to oppose the war. Again, this would have been a strong move. The public may have disagreed with it but they could understand and respect it. After all, the British people did not always agree with Tony Blair's foreign policy but even his biggest enemies saw him as a strong leader. Whether they liked him or loathed him, the British public saw a man who knew his views and stuck to them. This week Corbyn has shown the complete opposite of that strength and it could prove to be the beginning of the end of his leadership.

Tomorrow, dozens of Labour MPs are likely to vote in favour of Britain's involvement in one of the most complex, volatile and risky wars in recent decades and they will do so with Corbyn's de facto blessing.

Attempts by the Labour leader's supporters to paint this as a victory for 'debate' within the Labour party are a sham. This is as clear a defeat for Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership as there is possible to be.

Political leaders are not always successful when attempting to take on their own parties. Many try and many fail. But those who die by the sword at least attempt to live by it first. This week Corbyn didn't even try. It is a mistake he will come to regret.

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