More than 50 Labour MPs could defy Jeremy Corbyn by backing military intervention in Syria, in what would be the first parliamentary rebellion against his leadership.
David Cameron has indicated he wants to hold a fresh House of Commons vote on extending British action from Iraq into Syria, two years after opposition from Labour and Conservative backbenchers saw the Commons reject carrying out airstrikes in the country.
Mr Corbyn has already signalled that he opposes any widening of military action, but many of his Labour colleagues at Westminster – most of whom voted against him in the party’s recent leadership contest – are believed to disagree with his stance.
A number of Labour MPs have now stated their opposition to the position of the leadership and suggested they would be prepared to side with the Conservative government on the issue.
Senior Labour sources have said that between 50 and 100 of their MPs – including several members of the shadow cabinet – would be ready to back UK military action if its ultimate purpose was to protect civilians caught up in a growing humanitarian disaster.
Labour MP Jo Cox and Conservative former Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, writing in a newspaper article published yesterday, suggested that a “military component” is needed alongside humanitarian aid and intensive diplomacy.
They wrote: “Some may think that a military component has no place in an ethical response to Syria. We completely disagree.
“It is not ethical to wish away the barrel bombs from the Syrian government when you have the capacity to stop them.”
Ms Cox, a former head of policy at Oxfam, has called an adjournment debate on Syria when parliament returns from the conference recess today and is due to launch an all-party group focusing on the crisis tomorrow.
Labour MP John Woodcock, who is joining the all-party parliamentary group, said that MPs must keep an open mind given the human suffering of the Syrian people and the resulting refugee crisis.
He said: “The bottom line is that the killing and the flight of civilians will go on unless the international community can create safe havens in Syria for terrified people who are still being bombed.”
However, shadow international development secretary Diane Abbott issued a blunt rebuke to rebelling Labour members on Twitter yesterday, tagging Ms Cox and Mr Woodcock in a message that said: “Sad that Labour MPs want to support Cameron in his long held desire to bomb Syria.”
Labour MP Jess Phillips hit back by saying: “Abbot should put her case not slag off others for doing that. This is so hard, I have Syrian constituents begging for help.”