A great deal of news coverage has recently been devoted to calls for Jeremy Corbyn to distance himself from the Stop the War Coalition because of articles that were published on its website but later withdrawn. It has now emerged that a similar controversy is embroiling the Conservative Party after a prominent representative of a group knows as “The Cabinet” refused to retract a series of comments that have been condemned as divisive for the party and dangerous for the country.
The MP for Witney, who has been the leader of the Cabinet for many years, first outraged MPs by saying that anyone who voted against the RAF bombing of Syria was a “terrorist sympathiser”. The comment was widely condemned. Alex Salmond former SNP leader described it as “deeply insulting”. Labour’s Emily Thornberry said it was “offensive, dangerous and untrue”. Many others objected including the pro-intervention Labour MP John Woodcock and Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake. Despite repeated calls, no retraction has been forthcoming.
To make matters worse, the MP went on to imply a positive assessment of extremist groups fighting in Syria. The MP described “70,000 fighters” within Syria as “moderate”, provoking criticism from across the political spectrum. Conservative MP Julian Lewis who chairs parliament’s Defence Select Committee, said he was “extremely surprised” at the claim, whilst Labour MP Louise Haigh reported a briefing at which: “National Security Adviser confirms number of moderates on ground in Syria is 40,000 rest are much more radical Islamists.”
Critics leapt on the comments, pointing out that the only way the 70,000 figure could be arrived at was by including Jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Whilst this led to some backtracking and the concession that some of the groups referred to were not “ideal partners”, there was no meaningful clarification of which groups were in fact being included in the 70,000 claim.
This crude and uninformed lumping together of groups like the Free Syrian Army with others such as Jabhat al-Nusra has been seen as deeply offensive. Whilst it is true that Jabhat al-Nusra have at times opposed ISIL, they are also an al-Qaida affiliate. Human rights watch has found evidence that they are responsible for recruiting child soldiers, and they have been linked with chemical weapons.
Other members of the Cabinet have attempted to come to the rescue of their beleaguered colleague, suggesting that the characterisation of him as a supporter of terror groups is not entirely fair and that the comments should be looked at in the context of previous condemnations of terrorism.
Critics point out, however, that in the past the MP has successfully lobbied for military assistance for Islamic extremists in Libya. Most commentators agree that the comments tell us everything we need to know about the Cabinet and that nothing any member of the group may have said or done over the previous decades can in any way be seen as mitigating the unforgivable offense that has now been caused.
If the comments were not bad enough in themselves, it goes without saying that they are made a hundred times worse by the fact that only weeks ago terror attacks took place in Paris killing 130 and injuring hundreds more. Bombs exploded in the peaceful capital and innocent Parisians were gunned down. The group that carried out these attacks is recognised as having important commonalities with those being so unambiguously and enthusiastically supported by the Cabinet.
Reliable sources are understood to have indicated that prominent Conservatives within the moderate wing of the party have urged their fellow Conservatives to dissociate themselves from the Cabinet and make clear that the group does not represent the views of the party as a whole.
Fractious meetings have taken place and one enraged MP is understood to have told a reporter that relations within the party are a shambles and a farce and that the only way the party might possibly weather the storm would be if the press were distracted by a major event or an opportunity to discredit Jeremy Corbyn.