Labour divisions exposed as John McDonnell says Tom Watson 'wrong' to back US air strikes in Syria

The Shadow chancellor said his party's deputy took a different view from leader Jeremy Corbyn

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Indy Politics

Labour’s raw divisions over Syria have been thrust into the spotlight after John McDonnell said his own party’s deputy leader was “wrong” to back US military action in the Middle East country.

Shadow chancellor Mr McDonnell said Tom Watson’s views differed from both his and leader Jeremy Corbyn’s, which was that missile strikes against an Assad regime airbase, in response to a chemical weapons attack in the country’s civil war, should not have happened.

The Corbyn ally’s intervention follows chaos among Labour MPs, with many coming out in support of the US action despite Mr Corbyn saying the strikes risked enflaming the Syrian conflict.

Mr Watson put out his own statement before Mr Corbyn released one, arguing that the chemical weapons attack that had killed dozens including many children in Syria “must have consequences”.

Speaking to Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Mr McDonnell was read out the differing positions from Labour’s leader and deputy leader, and asked whose side he was on.

He responded: “Jeremy’s because I don’t believe there should have been a bombing.”

Asked if he thought Mr Watson was wrong, he said: “I think he was. Tom’s disagreed with us on the bombing of Syria all the way along. We had a free vote last year and he took a different view, and I respect that.

“I don’t condemn him, I respect it, but it’s a different view from both mine and Jeremy’s and others within the party. We believe that bombing was precipitous. There should have been a proper investigation. There should have been, hopefully then the start of the Geneva talks once again.

“This may have set us back. I’m hoping it hasn’t but the talks have got to start soon. We will not get a settlement in Syria as a result of bombing.”

After Mr Corbyn issued his position on the air strikes on Friday, a string of senior Labour figures immediately took a different view.

Hilary Benn, whose departure from the frontbench sparked a leadership challenge against Mr Corbyn, said he hoped Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad might now “think twice” about using chemical weapons.

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Former Treasury minister Angela Eagle said: “The limited, targeted action taken against Syrian air assets today was morally justifiable in response to a crime against humanity... and compliant with our Responsibility to Protect.”

She added: “Inaction has a cost in lives too.”

Ex-international development secretary Mary Creagh tweeted: “UK govt right to support US action against Homs airbase after Idlib chemical weapons attack on civilians. Hope this ends Assad’s impunity.

“Our inaction in 2013 allowed Assad’s war crimes against his people to continue unchecked. 500 000 dead 12m refugees.”

Her words were later backed by ex-home secretary Jacqui Smith on Twitter. Leading Ms Creagh to go further saying: “Amazing how some sections of the left – and right – prefer inaction in Syria to stopping a murderous tyrant and his genocide.”