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Jeremy Corbyn under pressure to offer free vote on Syria

By Gavin Cordon and David Hughes

Published 28/11/2015

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn is facing intense pressure to give Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes in Syria, with his shadow cabinet openly split on whether to back David Cameron's call for military action.

Deputy leader Tom Watson became the latest leading figure to speak out in support of bombing Islamic State (IS) in its Syrian heartland - putting him directly at odds with the party leader.

Senior figures on both sides played down the prospect of mass resignations if the shadow cabinet does not agree to give MPs a vote when it meets on Monday - something Mr Corbyn has previously rejected.

But with more than half his top team now against him on the issue, the Labour leader may have little choice but to agree if he wants to stave off a full-scale mutiny within the party.

While allies of Mr Corbyn appealed for calm within the Labour ranks, critics on the backbenches openly voiced their contempt for his "weak" leadership and urged him to step down.

Even sympathetic MPs admitted that he would be unable to carry on if it became clear that he was a "liability" to the party's chances at the next general election.

The incendiary row was triggered by Mr Corbyn's decision on Thursday to release a letter declaring he could not support RAF air strikes in Syria - seen by some MPs as an attempt to pre-empt Monday's meeting.

However, Mr Watson backed shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn - who was reportedly briefed by intelligence chiefs on the threat from IS - who said there was a "compelling" case for extending RAF airstrikes, currently restricted to Iraq, into Syria.

"I think there is an imminent terrorist threat being directed from Syria," he told the BBC. "Hilary Benn gave a very clear explanation that he thinks there is an imminent security threat to the UK and I agree with him on this."

With allies of Mr Corbyn warning critics would face the wrath of grassroots activists unless they fell into line, Mr Watson made clear he had no intention of resigning - pointing out that he also had been elected. "I am the deputy leader of the Labour Party with a mandate," he said.

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