David Cameron’s difficult political choice over Syria

So. Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election. I’m working on a longer post about Corbyn’s foreign policy views, but it’s safe to say he’s a well established opponent of Western military intervention in the Middle East. With David Cameron signaling that he plans to ask parliament to approve extending Britain’s role in the coalition against ISIS, Corbyn’s victory raises the prospect of an interesting political scenario.

Cameron knows he can’t win a vote without some Labour votes. There are enough Conservatives who share Corbyn’s aversion to military adventures to wipe out the government’s majority. He also knows some Labour MPs do support extending British strikes on ISIS into Syria. This leaves him facing an interesting choice.

Some Labour MPs have apparently signaled privately that they would be prepared to defy Corbyn and vote with the government over ISIS. This makes some sense. Not only is Corbyn much more left wing than many of his parliamentary colleagues, he also has a long history of defying the party whip. Cameron will have to decide whether he can risk relying on them. There is good reason to think he shouldn’t. Many Labour MPs supported intervention in Syria in 2013. All of them toed the party line. Corbyn, furthermore, is a newly elected leader. Few Labour MPs will want to damage his authority by voting with the hated Tories and against him so early on. Not only that, but Corbyn also has a massive mandate. He didn’t just win the leadership election, he won by a colossal landslide, and amongst established Labour members, not just new supporters. He can claim quite credibly to speak for the party. It will be a brave MP who stands against him now.

That leads us to a clear conclusion. David Cameron probably can’t win a vote on extending airstrikes into Syria. He might take the risk, but he isn’t really that sort of leader. He might try to roll back parliament’s conventional right of veto over military deployments, though given how much he did to bring it about that would be difficult. Or he could decide not to go into Syria after all.

My bet is on the latter. The political risks would be too great and the strategic benefits too little of doing anything else.

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