To claim that the Labour party is split at the moment over Syria is something of an understatement. Half the Shadow Cabinet were livid at Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to send a letter to David Cameron announcing that he could not support British military action.
That included the normally mild-mannered Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary. Benn finds the case for air strikes compelling, but says he will not resign.
It has taken Hilary Benn a long time to fill the shoes left by his more famous father Tony Benn. Hilary entered the House of Commons in the Leeds Central by-election in 1999, held following the death of Derek Fatchett.
Perhaps realising that he should give his son a better chance to shine, Benn senior stepped down as a Labour MP at the 2001 general election, famously saying he wanted to “spend more time on politics”.
Fortunately, Hilary shares hardly any of the left-wing beliefs of his late father, and was a strong supporter of New Labour. He quickly made it to Cabinet, following the resignation of Clare Short in May 2003, and worked with compassion as International Development Secretary.
In 2007, his political skills were recognised when he won Channel 4’s Politician of the Year award. Promotion followed when Gordon Brown made Benn Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, where he was best known for calling off a badger cull in 2008. In opposition, he has become a leading member of Labour’s frontbench team, surviving the transition from Ed Miliband to Jeremy Corbyn.
It is therefore worth speculating whether he might perform a caretaker leadership role should Corbyn be forced to resign over Syria. Benn has the advantage of having a pair of clean hands. During the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, he was one of the few MPs to emerge with an exemplary record. The Shadow Foreign Secretary is also trusted by Labour party members as a loyalist.
But Benn is too touchingly naïve to make to the very top. Nor does he command enough support among Labour MPs. Think back to the 2007 deputy leadership, where the Leeds Central MP was the bookmakers’ favourite, but struggled to gain enough nominations from MPs, and then finished a poor fourth to Harriet Harman.
Benn may yet surprise us all. However, a more radical solution could lie in another Yorkshire-based MP – Dan Jarvis. Like Hilary Benn, Jarvis entered the House of Commons in another by-election, this time in 2011 following the resignation of Eric Illsley, the Barnsley Central, later jailed for fraudulently claiming his Parliamentary expenses.
Jarvis suffers from the disadvantage of not having been born in Yorkshire, the first Barnsley Central MP not to hail from the county since 1938. However, his Nottingham roots have not held him back. As a former British Army Major, Jarvis can point to a 15-year service record in the Parachute Regiment, including two tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. If Labour are being portrayed as weak on defence, who better than a former soldier to put that right?
The Barnsley Central MP’s tough-guy image was cemented in March of this year when he confronted a mugger in London. It earned Jarvis the nickname at Westminster as “the steely messenger of death”. He surprised many observers in May when he said he would not run for the Labour leadership. However his party needs him. Not only would he be the leader that would most terrify the Tories, but he could also take on Ukip in the latter’s Northern heartlands. Should Labour lose the Oldham West and Royton by-election on Thursday, Labour MPs may come knocking at Jarvis’s door.
Before that, Jeremy Corbyn has to deal with the fallout from his decision to oppose Syria airstrikes. No formal mechanism exists for the Labour leader to be ousted in a Shadow Cabinet coup. Nor has any Labour leader been forced to resign since George Lansbury in 1935.
Cue outrage from Labour’s army of left-wing members if that were to happen. But the harsh reality is that in a Parliamentary system, we cannot have a situation where the leader of a major political party only commands the loyal support of one in 10 of his MPs.
Besides, it is Jeremy Corbyn who has, in effect, written his own resignation letter. Having told the Shadow Cabinet that no decision would be made until yesterday, he then disregarded his colleagues, by going public with his own personal views.
Always a man of deep principle in opposing nearly every major military intervention of the last 30 years, Corbyn has never had to compromise. Even allowing his MPs a free vote, it is difficult to see whether this position can hold – it defies belief that the main Opposition party does not have an agreed position on such a fundamental foreign policy.
Mark Stuart is a political academic form York who has written biographies of John Smith and Douglas Hurd.