Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
Sometimes the Prime Minister just can’t help himself. Until Tuesday, he had played a blinder in persuading Labour MPs of the case for air strikes in Syria. He had been calm, measured and persuasive.
And then he blew it at the 1922 Committee by asking Conservative MPs if they really wanted to go into the lobby with “terrorist sympathisers”. He didn’t mean Tory rebels. He didn’t mean Labour MPs. He meant Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. But that got lost in the media outrage when his words were leaked.
I suppose he thought he was among friends and they would all understand what he meant, but the ’22 leaks like a sieve, and he must surely know that. His entire speech in the debate on Wednesday was ruined by the constant interventions demanding an apology. What should have been one of the speeches of his career (think of Tony Blair’s speech in the Iraq war debate in March 2003) turned out to be a dreadful one, and it was entirely of his own making.
When you are in a hole you not only stop digging, but you do your best to extricate yourself. Generally, if you apologise for getting something wrong, people think better of you. Instead, the Prime Minister was like a fish bait on the end of a rod. He wriggled for half an hour.
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On Monday, I interviewed Frank Field about Labour’s leadership travails. He was hugely critical of Corbyn, but said there was no credible alternative. (In one sense he had a cheek, bearing in mind he was one of the ‘useful idiots’ who nominated him in the first place “so the party could have a real debate”.)
Well after that speech, there is now. It will be very interesting to see if Hilary Benn is willing to do what is necessary and become a real challenger to Corbyn. The latter can bang on all he likes about having the biggest mandate of any leader in Labour history, but if he continues to abuse the mandate and tank in the polls, he surely cannot expect to be leader by the time the next election comes round in May 2020.
May 2016 is his first real deadline, since then Labour faces key tests in a number of elections. If Sadiq Khan loses to Zac Goldsmith, if Labour comes behind the Conservatives in Scotland, if Labour loses seats in local elections and loses power in Wales, the “biggest mandate” argument won’t wash any longer. In addition, Labour is now down to 27 per cent in some national opinion polls. How low do they have to go before even Corbyn himself realizes something needs to change, and that the something is him?
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I can’t remember the last time a speech by a politician moved me to tears, but Benn’s did. That proved to be a problem because I was on College Green and knew that, as soon as he sat down, LBC’s Ian Collins would come to me for my analysis. Deep breaths. Lots of them. When he sat down I and my producer Matt Harris actually applauded at the TV monitor. Totally irrational, but we did it anyway.
I managed to give LBC listeners some reasonably rational analysis while Philip Hammond got to his feet. I am afraid Hammond missed a trick. All he needed to do was stand up and say “I agree with every word the Right Honourable Gentleman just said so brilliantly and eloquently, and there is nothing more I could possibly add”, and then sit down.
Instead, he totally misread the mood of the House and launched an attack on the Labour Party. He recovered from it by the end, but those are the perils of preparing your wind-up speech before you’ve heard what others had to say. Hilary Benn didn’t make that mistake. He wrote his entire speech while sitting on the front bench, listening to the debate.
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While Hilary was on his feet I tweeted this: “I’m not sure Tony Benn would have agreed a word of what his son Hilary is saying, but by God he is crying tears of pride in Heaven”.
An entirely innocuous tweet and a statement of fact, I’d have thought, but oh no, not when the leftist twitter trolls started on me. I suppose I am old enough and ugly enough to expect pure hatred and bile from the Far Left. It’s what they build their entire raison d’etre on.
However, some of what was tweeted was quite shocking. I knew Tony Benn well. He and I both counted each other as friends. I remember talking to him about Hilary, and how proud he was of him. Tony would cry at the drop of a hat. He got very emotional the first time he saw his at the Despatch Box answering ministerial questions.
He may not have believed in God or even the concept of heaven – although I remember having a conversation with him not long before he died when there were signs that he was reconsidering his stance on religion – but I have absolutely no doubt that although he wouldn’t have agreed with Hilary’s stance in the debate he would have been so proud of the oratory and the force of his argument. Parents can be proud of their children even when they profoundly disagree with what they have said or done. Believe me, I know.