By William James
Britain’s opposition Labour Party said on Monday its lawmakers could vote according to their consciences on air strikes against militants in Syria, a move which could hand Prime Minister David Cameron the parliamentary majority he needs.
Cameron believes it is time to join other Western powers in bombing Islamic State, saying Britain could not subcontract its security to other countries after the group claimed responsibility for killing 130 people in Paris this month.
But he must persuade some sceptical members in his own ruling Conservative Party and others in Labour, which is deeply divided on the subject after its leader, veteran anti-war campaigner, Jeremy Corbyn said he was opposed to the strikes.
By allowing the so-called ‘free vote’ – breaking with a tradition for party leaders to instruct lawmakers on how to vote on major decisions, Corbyn has moved to quell a rebellion in Labour, which had threatened to engulf his two-month leadership.
“Today’s Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn’s recommendation of a free vote on the government’s proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria,” the Labour Party said, referring to leading lawmakers who shadow the government’s portfolios.
It said they were also backing Corbyn’s call for the government to allow a two-day debate on launching air strikes, much longer than usual because it was ‘such a crucial decision’.
Earlier, the party said three-quarters of its members opposed bombing Islamic State militants in Syria, according to a sample of responses the party received over the weekend.
While many in Labour fear more air strikes will bring more instability to the region, some of the party’s leading members said they could not vote against them, arguing they were necessary to ensure Britain’s security.
Cameron hopes to build a majority to avoid a repeat of the damaging defeat parliament handed him in 2013, when it voted against launching air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
His defence minister, Michael Fallon, said at the weekend that opinion ‘was beginning to shift’.