Leadership talk is in the air. Names are tossed into the ring, trampled on and tossed out again. I have a simple view. When you look at the enormous task of transforming Labour’s fortunes there is only one name worth considering.
So: sorry Yvette, Lisa, Angela, Liz, Seema, Chuka, Keir, Clive, Dan. I love you all and admire your various talents. But Hilary Benn is the only person capable of dragging Labour back into electoral contention.
There are lots of rising stars: the new Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long Bailey, her predecessor Clive Lewis, Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, former Shadow Climate Change Secretary Lisa Nandy, not forgetting Jess Phillips the chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour party who is the subject of a must-read interview in the Guardian . They provide lots of reasons for being optimistic about the future. But it would be cruel in the extreme to pitch any of them into what is now the job from hell.
Indeed, Benn might take a bit of persuading. Labour’s plight, with the party in the mid twenties in the polls and its leader’s approval ratings trailing his Tory opposite number’s by 40 per cent, is worse than that facing Neil Kinnock in 1983. But the persuaders have a good line to pitch to Benn. It comes from his acclaimed Commons speech in December 2015 – “now is the time for us to do our bit”. That speech, calling for military action in Syria, is Benn’s standout qualification for the leadership. It is also, of course, for many Labour members, the biggest barrier to his election.
Parliamentary performances aren’t everything but nor are they insignificant. Theresa May is a pedestrian performer in the Commons. Her leaden-footed response to Jeremy Corbyn’s ambush over the Surrey sweetheart deal was the Labour leader’s best PMQs to date. But it didn’t come out of the blue. She is often matched or bettered by him.
The Prime Minister would have even more to fear from Benn. As well as outclassing her in the Commons, he can match her for government experience — nine years as a minister from 2001 to 2010, seven of them in the Cabinet. It is inconceivable that she would retain that current 40 point lead in personal approval. And having an electable leader is the key to Labour’s to climb back to safer territory in the polls.
But could Hilary Benn be elected by a Labour membership that has produced two Corbyn landslides? After the Syria speech Benn was dubbed a warmonger and compared to Tony Blair on Iraq for daring to champion military action.
But in my view, too many in the party are trapped in a simple “Stop the War” mentality whereas building peace around the globe is a complex task. It is one that Benn thinks broadly and deeply about, as is clear from a speech he made as International Development Secretary in 2005. Most of the issues he addresses are still with us.
More generally, last year’s landslide stemmed as much from anger at the way MPs tried to remove Corbyn and dissatisfaction with Owen Smith as it did from an ideological shift in the electorate. An election without Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper would be wide open.
Will he stand down. The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush in his indispensable daily newsletter counsels caution. He ssays “Corbyn would never voluntarily hand back control of the party to his opponents, so until there is a rule change(so that fewer MPs are needed to nominate a leadership contender), any talk that he has planned his retirement should be treated with extreme scepticism.”Corbyn himself insists he is going nowhere — but with unconscious irony he used the Trumpish phrase “fake news”, which is now taken as confirmation of whatever the president is trying to deny.
The current leadership speculation does seem to be based on something real. It stems from a twitter stream by Jennifer Williams, political editor of the Manchester Evening News. Based on three Shadow Cabinet sources. she reported that Corbyn, has “given a departure date to his close circle. Hence the frenzy … Third source agrees there’s definite manoeuvring. Expectation that Corbyn is going, not necessarily straight away, but going”
I have a single source saying the same thing. “Are we going to get a new leader before 2020?” I asked. “Yes”, came the reply. When and how was less clear. A member of Team Corbyn told me last week that “succession planning” was what any good business would do. I was intrigued to see the phrase pop up in the Sunday Times report of leaked focus group reports.
So, I am persuaded that one way or another we will get a new leader. There is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has raised his game since his re-election last September but electors have written him off. I see absolutely no chance of him bringing about the transformation needed. The only person who has any chance of doing that is the man who described himself as a “Benn but not a Bennite.”