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'Labour's Isis crisis': Media reaction to David Cameron’s planned 'war' on Isis

By Paul Connew | Media Expert

November 27, 2015 | 8 min read

Political spin doctors are a much despised breed. But they do have their uses. And the Labour Party, my party, has sore need of skilled PR support right now.

For starters, the internecine war over whether to back David Cameron on the UK joining air strikes against Isis in Syria gift-wrapped newspapers — and not just the Tory prints — a diversionary tactic from their own agonising and uncertainties on the issue.

Labour at war over vote to bomb Isis’ declared the Times front page lead. ‘Labour in Syria turmoil as PM makes the case for war’ echoed the Guardian’s splash. ‘Labour in IS Chaos’ was the Sun’s front-page take, although-intriguingly — it only made it second lead, preferring to splash on the UK’s record immigration figures.

That choice might conceivably be partly a legacy of the Sun’s controversial opinion poll earlier in the week claiming that one-in-five UK Muslims sympathises with extremists – a poll ‘interpretation’ that has triggered a record complaints bag for press regulator IPSO and been semi-disowned by Survation, the pollsters who conducted it for the paper.

Significantly the Daily Mail also chose to splash on the record migration statistics, under the headline: ‘Migration Crisis could push UK out of Europe’ without a single page one line on David Cameron’s call to arms or Labour’s civil war. That almost certainly reflects the Mail’s consistent line of questioning the wisdom of extending the RAF’s role to Syria and clear hostility to any notion of British boots on the ground – putting the paper in the curious position of almost sharing pillow talk with Jeremy Corbyn.

Over two-pages inside, however, the Mail chose to focus on Labour’s Isis crisis rather than its own, with a headline screaming: ‘Labour at war over Syria strikes’. Alongside it, however, editor-in-chief Paul Dacre gave star columnist and military historian Max Hastings, a regular cynic on UK intervention, a platform to praise Cameron’s statesmanlike Commons performance under the headline: ‘The die is cast: we are going to bomb’. But the first sentence of Max Hastings article spoke volumes: ‘He nearly convinced me’….and the conclusion, ‘Even after the Prime Minister’s impressive performance, I find it hard to accept that it will bring us any closer to a happy ending, unless or until there is a political deal with Russia and Iran’.

It was also significant that neither the Tory-supporting Mail nor the Sun elected to run leaders on David Cameron’s recommendation Britain goes to war — a remarkable omission. The Mail devoted its leader column to the immigration figures, while the Sun delivered a critical postscript to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement headlined ‘Positively Risky’.

Over at the Mirror, loyal to Labour but lukewarm about Jeremy Corbyn, bets were being hedged under a splash headline: ‘Cam’s ready for war…is Britain?’. The hedging continued inside under headline: ‘Should we start strikes in Syria to target Isis?’ with Alison Phillips arguing for ‘Yes’ and the paper’s high-profile political writer and broadcaster Kevin Maguire declaring ‘No’.

But at least the Mirror did run a somewhat inconclusive leader headlined ‘Battle lines are drawn’ which branded Isis ‘barbaric terrorists and suicide bombers who pose a danger to Britain and other countries far from Syria and Iraq’, supporting David Cameron up to a point while (quite reasonably) questioning his assertion that there are 70,000 reliable, moderate anti-Isis fighters on the ground, ready, willing and able to capitalise on the aerial bombardments.

But the leader pulled no punches on Labour’s Isis crisis declaring the party to be ‘hopelessly split, plunged into civil war when anti-bombing leader Jeremy Corbyn and pro-bombing shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn engage in public battle’.

Predictably, the Daily Telegraph backed the Prime Minister under the leader column headline ‘David Cameron has made the case for action in Syria,’ arguing – rightly, in my view- that there is no logic in the RAF striking in Iraq but not Syria and pressing the case for the UK to support its allies already in action in the skies above Syria.

But the Telegraph leader isn’t short of caveats, stressing that the Prime Minister ‘needs a consensus not just a narrow victory’ and acknowledging that it is made more difficult by Jeremy Corbyn’s unequivocal opposition. Rightly again the Telegraph questions the ability of the Free Syrian Army to effectively take on Isis and raises the divisive spectre of whether President Assad’s Russian-backed and equipped army would be needed to complete the job.

On Monday Labour will face its own D-Day when the Shadow Cabinet resumes its deliberations on whether to support the Prime Minister when it comes to the crucial parliamentary vote later in the week. If Jeremy Corbyn fails to allow his MPs a free vote and tries to impose a three-line whip, it will inevitably spark the resignations of half his front bench team, a major revolt on the back benches and a humiliating defeat which could destroy either the leader himself or the party’s credibility with the public.

While the die-hard Corbynistas and romantic idealists are doubtless supportive of the leader and contemptuous of his media critics, they should take a look at the opinion polls showing that, however reluctantly, the majority of the British public now back British air strikes.

For what it’s worth, I was one of those who strongly opposed Tony Blair’s ill-judged Iraq war that helped spawn the chaos and bloodshed from which Isis emerged. But it’s that past culpability that makes the case for intervention now more, rather than less, valid. Ultimately, even those British newspapers that are backing David Cameron on air strikes but rejecting the idea of any British boots on the ground in Syria, may well have to think again.

Ironically, Ken Livingstone, a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, was right on the BBC’s Question Time to concede that a UN force – with some western nations’ troops involved – would be needed if Isis really is to be destroyed.

But even David Cameron might need the services of a remarkable spinmeister to sell that unpalatable truth. SOS for Lynton Crosby?

Away from its front page focus on Labour's woes, the Times leader 'Bombing Syria' strongly advocates that 'Britain should join allies in attacking Isis' but concedes ' it will not land a fatal blow on the jihadists'. It also dismissed the prime minister's championing of the Free Syrian Army as an effective follow-up ground force as 'an exercise in wishful thinking'. Arguing,'The grim reality is that only the US has the military muscle needed to bring Isis to its knees and to do so without rewarding the murderous regime of Assad. It is, in the light of its experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, reluctant to do so. We have to be correspondingly realistic about what can be achieved by our Tornados in the coming months'.

Elsewhere Times columnist Melanie Phillips weighed in under the headline, 'We can't beat Isis with one hand tied behind our back'. And a sub-head reading: 'Airstrikes alone won't defeat the terrorists but the public won't tolerate troops on the ground'. She concluded: 'When Iraq fell apart as a result of gross incompetence over the aftermath of the war, the public decided it had been lied to and would never again believe a case for all-out war in the Arab or Muslim world. Which is why Cameron is unable to commit to fighting Isis properly by deploying ground troops. He told the Commons correctly that his first job is to 'keep the British people safe'. True. The fact that he cannot do so unless he is given permission should surely disturb us'.

If Her Majesty's Opposition is tearing itself apart on the issue, Her Majesty's press has its own fair share of agonising in the days and months ahead, too.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror

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