Hilary Benn has ruled out running for Labour leader in the wake of his dramatic speech on Syria and spoken of his regret at people using his father’s memory to attack his position in favour of airstrikes.
The shadow foreign secretary, son of the late antiwar Labour grandee Tony Benn, condemned former SNP first minister Alex Salmond’s comment that his father would be “burling in his grave” at his speech advocating bombing during the House of Commons debate on Syria.
“I agree with his fellow SNP MP who described it as repulsive. I thought, ‘Well, pretty cheap,’” he told the Guardian.
While he won respect for sticking to his views and speaking from the frontbench against Jeremy Corbyn, others accused him of betraying his leader and his father. Benn revealed he had replied to the many emails he had received since, even abusive ones.
“I’ve said, I’m sorry you’ve decided to use my father’s death as a way of trying to attack me. It’s interesting that some people feel they can use him to bash me over the head, like they own him and his memory, and that somehow I have dishonoured his memory, and that I have some responsibility to think entirely like him. I replied to a woman the night before last, ‘Can I just gently point out, with great respect, you have absolutely no idea what my parents would have thought of me?’”
After his speech, which moved some MPs to tears and applause and polarised opinion within his party, the odds on Benn succeeding Corbyn as Labour leader abruptly shortened. But while he acknowledged that Labour was going through a difficult time and compared it to the internal struggles of the 1980s, he insisted he had no desire ever to lead the party.
“I can look you in the eye and say, no, no, no,” he said. “I have absolutely no interest in leading the Labour party. And that is the truth. It’s a very difficult and challenging job. And I don’t want to do it.”
Benn denied that speaking out against Corbyn was a betrayal but acknowledged there was a “bit of tension” and they were “in an awkward situation”.
“I didn’t betray anybody. How could standing up for what you think is the right thing to do in these circumstances ever be betrayal?” he said.
Asked whether he thought he would be sacked, Benn said: “I didn’t make the speech because I wanted to go out with a bang. Of course, you take the consequence. But I never thought perhaps I shouldn’t say this because I might lose my job.”
Following the reshuffle, it emerged that Corbyn and Benn had agreed there would be no repeat of the Syria situation in which both men spoke from the frontbench with opposing views. But it is clear that Benn still intends to speak his mind on the remaining big point of contention within Labour – whether to support the replacement of Trident nuclear submarines.
“Look, Syria is done. That’s over. The Commons has taken its decision,” he said. “We’ve got the deterrent coming up, and Jeremy knows there are people in the shadow cabinet who agree we should maintain it, and those who think we should get rid of it. People are entitled to express their view on that subject. And on the rest, we’re going to work together.”
Benn said of his own politics that he believes in “a compromise between the purity of the ideal and being able to help people”.
“You can be completely happy with your beliefs – but if you don’t win, you can’t help anybody,” he said.
Asked whether he thinks Corbyn is too wedded to the ideal, Benn said: “Jeremy is a good, decent, honest, principled man. He won a huge victory. I’m serving in the shadow cabinet because I want to support him and I want Labour to win the next election. I would just say you have to balance these things.”
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