Hilary Benn: Yet to seize the initiative (Chatham House CC BY-SA 2.0)
Came the time, came the man, or so thought many. In the Commons debate on bombing Syria, the shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, seized the moment.
Until then, Benn was little known outside the Westminster bubble, and then mainly as “son of the more famous Tony”. Unexpectedly he gave what was probably the best, most passionate and certainly the bravest, speech from the despatch box this century. As Corbyn sat hunched and expressionless, staring into space, Benn tore into his leader’s lumpen, Marxist, appeasement-based case against bombing Islamic State. Benn described IS as “evil” and “fascist”, and as such it needed to be destroyed. He resumed his seat next to Corbyn, to a wave of applause — a breach of Commons protocol. The bearded one edged away from him.
Benn proceeded to vote against the Corbyn line, giving courage to dozens of closet rebels to come out and join him. But he decided to stay on as foreign affairs spokesman. Tactically he was right. By sitting tight he further humiliated Corbyn. The hero of the hour was too popular for Corbyn to sack immediately. In any case the Great Leader had been forced to concede a free vote. But Benn’s days were — supposedly — numbered. Corbyn’s spin machine made that brutally clear. Just wait for the New Year reshuffle.
So what went wrong — for both Corbyn and Benn — in that botched purge? Some, supposedly in the know, claim Corbyn struggled to keep Benn onside, offering him assorted confidential concessions. Other self-styled insiders insist Benn fought desperately to avoid relegation, promising to behave himself in future. Either way, the crucial question remains unanswered. Why did Benn not seize the initiative and return to the back benches as leader of the opposition to the Leader of the Opposition — cowardice or misplaced calculation? God knows there could be nothing but humiliation for Benn in the rejigged shadow cabinet — and he must have known it too.
One depressing clue to Benn’s mood at the time: on the morning after the reshuffle he denied he had been muzzled or had done a deal. But then he offered the Corbynite message (I paraphrase): “The task now is to unite and defeat this frightful Tory government.” There was no longer any suggestion that the first task was to fight and fight again to save the party from Corbynism, no hint that only when Labour embraced sane policies would the party have any chance of beating the Tories at the ballot box. Since then most other potential rebels have adopted this defeatist mantra.
Now Benn has a chance to redeem himself. Corbyn should beware the Ides of March. For this month the third act of this drama is likely to be played out. Cameron is expected to invite the Commons to vote on the future of our outdated Trident nuclear deterrent. A substantial majority of even the purged shadow cabinet supports renewal. Benn is one of them. But Corbyn is a nuclear pacifist. He has said he would never press the button. He won’t get shadow cabinet agreement on scrapping the submarines and not replacing them, so his compromise wheezes include — no kidding — using a new generation of amazingly expensive subs as very small, underwater troop carriers, or sending them on patrol without nuclear warheads.
Whatever his final recommendation, Corbyn will have to grant a free vote, as he did on Syria. And this will surely be Benn’s moment of truth. It is incredible to think he can sit silent during the Commons debate. So will he speak dishonestly in support of some ludicrous fudge, or will be he find the courage to speak out honestly once again and immediately resign to lead the back-bench fightback? We know he can talk the talk. But dare he walk the walk? His future, as well as that of Corbyn, and the party Benn loves, could well depend on the decision he makes.