The defence secretary has accused Labour of having taken Britain into “illegal wars” during a heated exchange over an armed forces bill, as three junior shadow ministers lost their roles after breaking the opposition party whip calling on its MPs to abstain.
Ben Wallace’s intervention came during the second reading of the overseas operations bill, which saw a total of 18 Labour MPs led by Jeremy Corbyn vote against the controversial legislation.
A clearly irate Wallace intervened as John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, was arguing that the bill risked breaching the Geneva conventions that outlaw torture and war crimes because it proposes a presumption against prosecution after five years for British soldiers serving overseas.
“Much of the mess we are having to come and clean up today is because of your illegal wars, your events in the past,” Wallace said, accusing Healey of making “wild allegations” about the intentions of the bill.
A surprised Healey said: “That is not worthy of the office of the secretary of state for defence. We are dealing with matters of torture, war crimes, [Ministry of Defence] negligence, compensation for injured troops and compensation for the families who have lost their loved ones overseas.”
Three of the Labour rebels – Nadia Whittome, Beth Winter and Olivia Blake – have lost their junior frontbench roles as a result of disobeying the whip.
Labour sources said the three MPs were warned in advance that they could not remain in their posts as parliamentary private secretaries if they voted against the legislation.
Whittome told ITV’s Robert Peston she hadn’t resigned but party sources suggested she was considered to have done so by going through the “no” lobby.
“I thought the bill was a matter of conscience,” Whittome said. But she added that it was “reasonable” for colleagues to decide to abstain and try to amend the legislation during the later stages of its passage through parliament.
She said the bill was “anti-veteran, anti-human rights, and would effectively decriminalise torture – and that’s why I voted against it”.
The move against the three MPs is an indication of the firm discipline Keir Starmer intends to exert over his party — and underlines the continued tensions between leftwingers and the new leadership.
The last time a minister had suggested a war was illegal at the dispatch box was Nick Clegg describing the Iraq war in 2010, a statement that he was forced to clarify amid concern it could expose the government to legal action.
The then deputy prime minister said that he was speaking in a personal capacity, while international lawyers warned a statement by a government minister in such a formal setting could weaken the UK’s position in the courts.
Allies of Wallace said he had no intention of retracting or clarifying his remarks, which unlike Clegg’s were not linked to any specific conflict. Britain fought wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and most controversially in Iraq when Labour was last in government, and was broadly involved in the so-called “war on terror” alongside the US.
However, despite Healey’s concern about torture and war crimes, the opposition was embroiled in its own row when 18 MPs defied a party whip to abstain in the second reading vote in the early evening.
Former party leader Corbyn led the rebels who also included John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Rebecca Long-Bailey and others from the Socialist Campaign Group. “I have grave concerns that, as it stands, the overseas operation bill the House of Commons is discussing today defies and undermines international law,” Corbyn said.
Party sources indicated they were not unhappy that Corbyn had broke with his successor Starmer over the bill, arguing that it created a dividing line between the past and present leaders.