One of the highlights for me of this year’s Labour conference in Brighton was Hilary Benn’s speech at a Labour for Remaining In Europe campaign rally/launch. Alan Johnson was the star of the show, but Benn’s speech was unexpectedly (to me at the time anyhow) fantastic. He spoke eloquently yet passionately about why Britain should remain in the EU. As a pro-European I took great comfort from the fact that Alan and Hilary would be at the heart of the Labour Remain campaign.
I should also mention that the whole event had an almost inevitable anti-Corbyn feel to it. I don’t recall Benn mentioning the leader once, while Alan spoke of him only twice throughout – and each time he did you could feel the energy physically leave the room. AJ knew it as well and had his best jokes quite clearly planned to immediately follow his perfunctory mentions of the leader of the Labour Party. The Corbynistas meanwhile were very few and far between within a packed room at Labour conference. I still don’t know if it was the vibe that put them off, or if it was the whole “the EU is a capitalist product of the Bilderberg Nazis who run the One World government” thing they ascribe to.
After Wednesday’s brilliant speech (and there are many detractors out there, but it was magnificent), Hilary Benn has suddenly, and I believe rather unintentionally, put himself forward as an alternative leader of the Labour Party. I have written before about possible replacements for Jez – but they never featured Hilary. One, because I never thought he really wanted it and two, until recently I’d never seen definitive examples of his ability to carry it off.
Now, he still says he doesn’t want it, but that is what anyone would say at the moment. It is not yet a time when any thoughts of leader defenestration can possibly be trotted out (and with Labour seriously crushing UKIP in Oldham, that’s even more true than it was a few days ago), particularly by anyone who has serious thoughts of taking over. But Benn has now shown he has what it takes for the job – and others in the PLP will undoubtedly be thinking the same thing.
So should he be added to the rather small list of Labour MPs who could plausibly be leader, joining Dan Jarvis, Keir Starmer, and, well that’s it really? I’d offer a cautious yes. Being part of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is a large drawback, but given he’s just shown he can take a huge stand against the leader’s position and remain in post, most of the downsides of this have already been played out and shown to be irrelevant. No one can claim that Benn is unpatriotic or weak on national security after that speech.
But we’re avoiding the real issue here: Hilary Benn, however much he might seem prime ministerial to commentators, probably does not have a hope in hell of ever being Labour leader? Why? Because he would have to be voted into such a position by a group of people amongst whom 60% thought Jeremy Corbyn was the man for the job. People like Benn don’t want to face up to the fact that the Labour membership is becoming evermore a bastion of anti-western, far-left ideology, and that there is increasingly no place for the “Labour values” of lore he talked of so eloquently within said party. They don’t want to hear it, Hilary (if social media hadn’t already alerted this to you).
So the answer is, yes, he would probably be an excellent Labour leader. But no, he won’t be, because that’s no longer a realistic appraisal of how one becomes such a thing any longer.