26 Nov 2015

Syria: is ‘70,000 troops’ the new ’45 minutes’?

70,000 is the number of potential troops on the ground David Cameron claimed are ready and willing to do the occupying and retaining work after allies have bombed so-called Islamic State strongholds from the air.

The Prime Minister said this was the number of Syrian opposition fighters – mainly made up of the Syrian Free Army. He said this was a number signed off by the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Britain November 26, 2015 REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett - RTX1VXDY

He had to repeat the number, and this assertion, a few times because quite a few MPs, most of them on his own side, lined up to challenge or query it.

45 minutes is, of course, the timing that appeared in the Iraq Dossier and purported to be how long it would take Saddam Hussein to fire a long range missile with a chemical warhead. That too, of course, signed off by the intelligence elite.

David Cameron banished all trace of his Flashman side for the extended statement to the Commons.

There was a polite word for everyone, an acknowledgement of deeply held positions that conflicted with his own, a ready acceptance that judgement calls were needed.

It worked for quite a few Labour MPs.

The Shadow Cabinet met straight after the Statement finished.

Jeremy Corbyn was late in and said the meeting would have to last no more than 45 minutes. Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell said that it should be as long as it needed to be.

Amongst those who spoke in favour of military action were Vernon Coaker, Tom Watson (who emphasised his vote against Libyan military action), Hilary Benn, Michael Dugher, Angela Eagle and Lucy Powell.

Lucy Powell was also briefly involved in a rebuke to Diane Abbott who she told off for being offensive.

Diane Abbott was one of the small number of Shadow ministers who spoke in agreement with Jeremy Corbyn (the others were Jon Trickett and the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party John Cryer). John McDonnell didn’t speak.

Diane Abbott’s phone went off during her address, and she told MPs that she hadn’t listened to David Cameron’s statement to the Commons. When she suggested some points she was told (by Hilary Benn at one point) that those had been addressed in the House.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke from typed notes and then let everyone else have their say. He sat, one source said, impassively through the rest of the meeting and after listening to the voices out-numbering him simply thanked everyone for expressing their views and said the Shadow Cabinet would meet again on Monday.

One at the table said they were staggered at the leader’s inability to try to shape the discussion.

Britain's opposition Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, listens at the close of the Labour Party conference at Brighton, Britain, in this September 30, 2015 file photograph. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain said in an article published on October 26, 2015 there was a lack of respect towards the kingdom in British public discourse that could have "potentially serious repercussions" on bilateral relations. He singled out comments by Corbyn, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party and an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia's human rights record, as an example of "mutual respect being breached". REUTERS/Toby Melville/files - RTX1TA1M

They agreed to fire off some questions to No.10, including one about that “70,000” number.

They meet again on Monday but it looks like there is only one possible outcome.

There had been talk of pro-military action Shadow Cabinet members trying to get a three-line whip position backing Cameron and truly humiliating their leader, forcing him to vote against his own whip.

Nobody actually spoke for that in the Shadow Cabinet though, so it looks like a free vote allowing everyone to go their own way will be what the party will do on Wednesday when the vote is expected to happen in the Commons.

How many MPs would follow, say, two thirds of the Shadow Cabinet? “Maybe half the PLP,” one MP said. That could be an extraordinary moment in the brief and eventful history of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

“A nail in his coffin,” one MP suggested.

But the truth is, there is no fixed plan for a political assassination, just mounting discontent and anger that has, for now, focused round the issues thrown up after the Paris shootings.

There is no agreed candidate of the Centre/Right, no agreed mission, no agreed strategy.

At one point in my conversations with Labour frontbenchers today one of them started talking about “transitional arrangements.” I thought we were talking about Syria and the government that could replace Assad’s but it turned out his mind had returned to the leadership.

The leader’s office is hoping that it can head off some of the mounting insurrection over the weekend with grassroots members lobbying MPs to oppose the Cameron motion in the Commons.

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