Tom Peck's Sketch: 'Degrading Isis' will be difficult, but the House of Commons had no trouble degrading itself

They debated all day and long into the night. Not about Syria, but whether David Cameron would apologise.

Tom Peck
Parliamentary Sketch Writer
Wednesday 02 December 2015 20:34 GMT
David Cameron addressing the House of Commons
David Cameron addressing the House of Commons (PA)

As all parliamentarians know, there is no graver question than whether the Prime Minister will apologise for a leaked remark made to a committee of backbenchers.

Ten and a half hours of parliamentary time had been set aside to discuss it. 157 MPs had submitted requests to speak.

Some became sadly overwhelmed by the gravity of the occasion and began talking about whether or not to bomb Syria, but such interventions were mercifully few.

Matters of war and peace come before the House of Commons reasonably regularly these days, but they are still nevertheless usually accorded the reverence they deserve.

This was no such occasion. On Tuesday night, David Cameron had warned some of his rebellious MPs not to walk through the no lobbies with “Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”. The remark was leaked, and as such the question of airstrikes became for long hours of secondary importance to the question of whether the Prime Minister would apologise, “to clear the air” which unsurprisingly, he did not. But the blame for the debate’s acrid atmosphere must be shared more widely than Cameron.

The airstrikes, the Prime Minister said, would “degrade and destroy” Isis, and even if it proves to be a failure, the house achieved remarkable success in degrading itself.

Alan Johnson attacked, “The self-righteous certitude of the finger-jabbing representatives of our new and kinder politics.” A fine line, but an afternoon's leave of absence from the internal machinations of the Labour Party had never been more urgently required.

And if Isis cannot be destroyed, they can at least be renamed. “The time has come to use the terminology Daesh rather than ISIL,” the Prime Minister said at one point, fully ten seconds before warning the house that, “The UK is already in the top tier of countries on ISIL’s target list.”

Whether it was the severity of the occasion or to re-state his pacifist tendencies, Jeremy Corbyn wore a navy jacket in place of his preferred khaki, and he almost kept the contents of his inbox to himself. When he moved to read out a “message from a constituent of mine” the Conservative benches did their usual uproarious laughter, which was only mildly tempered when it turned out to be from a Syrian by the name of Abdulaziz Almashi, who was nervous that the Royal Air Force might do what Isis had not yet done, and blow up his family in their home. “I am sorry, but it is not funny,” Corbyn said. He’s right. It wasn’t. But nor was it sufficient to stop his Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, who was sitting sitting beside him, to continuously shake his head as he spoke. A new low perhaps, but there’s been so many.

Mr Almashi needn’t worry. The Prime Minister again praised the wonders of Britain’s super accurate “Brimstone Precision Missile Defence System” which we were again assured can be guaranteed to execute a jihadist in a packed Syrian souk from 90,000 feet without so much as blowing a breeze up a bystander’s burka. “How do we avoid civilian casualties?” he said. “Well, we have a policy on it.”

Not everyone was convinced. “If he actually believes we are going to engage in a bombing campaign in a densely packed environment like Raqqa and there not be civilian casualties, he is living on a different planet,” the SNP’s defence spokesperson, a certain Alex Salmond, told him.

Cameron will win the vote, of course, and British jets could be screeching in the skies above Syria as soon as tomorrow. An ill-judged remark may yet prove not much to be asked to apologise for.

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