The voice at the other end of the phone…

ALL weekend government ministers having been ringing Labour MPs asking for their support in the vote on airstrikes in Syria against Isis strongholds, or so the BBC has been reporting.

If this is true it makes Tory ministers sound like Mafia bosses – “Vote for David or you’ll be waking up next to a horse’s head.” I know that Westminster politicians have always been admirers of the American TV show The West Wing. Now it transpires that they love the Sopranos too.

David Cameron is determined to win the forthcoming vote because, as he keeps indicating, a second loss on a vote to bomb Syria would be a propaganda coup for Isis – as well as an embarrassment to the prime minister, of course. Shouldn’t something as serious as this be above the red face or otherwise of a prime minister?

Simon Jenkins, the former editor of The Times, wrote the other day that Cameron’s drive to bomb Syria was “macho, foolish and must be stopped”.

Yet the one leading politician who is determined to do this has been open to the deepest bile and the most vicious attacks – many of them from MPs in his own party.

The reason government ministers are said to have been doing a Tony Soprano is that Jeremy Corbyn has challenged David Cameron’s bombastic call to arms. As with Afghanistan and Iraq, the pre-bombing talk is all so stirring while being vague – so determined in what it will achieve, yet uncertain exactly what will be achieved, besides blowing up benighted Syrian villages where Isis are said to hide out.

It is possible to have your own doubts – is this right or wrong, shouldn’t we be doing at least something after the horrors of Paris? – while still being alarmed that once again jingoism and stained national pride are being dusted off before another call to war.

MPs as a group seem to be like sardines under the sea at such times, massing together in a sort of unthinking cloud, swimming and swerving together, and not allowed to break away from the pack.

Sardines do that to protect themselves; MPs do it to protect their sense of worth and importance. And you can’t help worrying that being macho makes them feel more important.

Not all MPs think that way. And that’s why there should be a free vote on whether or not to bomb Syria: a vote free of party influence, and a vote free from a voice at the other end of the phone making threatening noises.

As for David Cameron, he now wants to bomb Syria for a completely different reason than the last time round. Then it was to help remove Assad – now it’s to bomb Isis and help keep Assad in power.

Smooth assurances are what you always get from Mr Cameron, and the same is true here. But stirring words from a smooth operator are hardly what you need when considering whether or not to join the French and the Americans in dropping bombs on Isis.

And how much of this latest foreign adventure is actually about the prime minister wanting to look good?

No one can have been unmoved by what happened in Paris – no one can avoid feeling that something must be done. But isn’t there a danger here that bombing Isis strongholds in Syria is the real ‘publicity coup’ for these terrorists? By treating this as a war, we are accepting at face value that Isis are worthy of a war. We are in a colloquial sense ‘bigging them up’ – aren’t we?

None of this is easy, but amid the growing bellicose rumble we should still be able to ask if the case for dropping bombs has been truly made. And that’s why MPs should be free to vote as they wish.

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