It doesn't take much to be Labour's leader-in-waiting these days. There's David Miliband, failed leadership candidate and proud former owner of a 0.5% contact rate. Dan Jarvis is another - distinguished military service makes him a front runner regardless of what he says and does. And there is Hilary Benn, the man who electrified the political establishment and their media hangers ons with a simple 15 minute speech. This speech:
Having odd-jobbed his way around the front bench for years, before taking up shadow foreign secretary under Harriet Harman's ill-fated tenure as caretaker leader, Hilary cut something of an overlooked figure. He reminded me of Lembit Opik, sans The Cheeky Girls and the crippling mid-life crisis. He is well-liked, able, and considered a little bit bumbling in a friendly, avuncular kind of way. But not someone destined for a seat at the captain's table. I've met him the once, too. We went down London town for a staffers' briefing in early 2011 at party HQ. Our reward for braving Virgin Trains was a star turn from The Edster, who took time out to address us minions, and while we were hanging around for lunch Hilary came in and amiably nattered with us ... in what looked like rain-drenched cycling fatigues. Proof, as if it were needed, that nice, friendly people are quite capable of doing the most damnable things.
As a piece of oratory, Hilary's speech was good. His cadences rose and fell, the pointing fingers and table prodding were deployed to full effect, alliteration and wordplay, history and socialist internationalism were pulled together in a well-crafted speech that was reputedly written on the green benches as other members made their contributions. Technically polished and married to effective delivery, Hilary's was a stand out speech not because it's up there with the oration of Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, but because Parliament contains so few skilled speakers. It's rare to hear an argument, any argument, put with eloquence and persuasive force. And that is the case with this Parliament more than any other, seeing as members - Tory members especially - speak to score points and to cretinously endear themselves to the front bench. The problem, however, is that Hilary's speech, polished as it was, contained nothing new. All he achieved was to make Dave's incredible plan appear that little more credible.
Less than a month ago, Hilary was in The Indy arguing against the government extending airstrikes to IS targets in Syria, adding that they needed to have a plan. As Hilary gave this interview after the Paris atrocity, what had changed to necessitate bombing in the absence of reliable intelligence and a clear plan for Syria, and not the pie in the sky dependent on so many undependables as per Dave's plan? There is nothing I can see, nothing that has changed. Yes, airstrikes could harm and hamper IS, but how to "smart-bomb" without intelligence? The RAF record in Iraq doesn't fill one with confidence. The 'no civilian casualties' figure arising from RAF bombing in Iraq since IS were at the gates of Baghdad last year, and bandied about by Michael Fallon like a rabbit's foot, is a MoD estimate.
Hilary hasn't accounted for his journey from a conditional no to an unconditional yes. Treat the speech as a master class, fine. But it is also a salutary lesson of dressing an intellectual and political collapse up in fine words, of a pragmatic position surrendering to the understandable but wrongheaded and reckless "we must do something" nonsense peddled by the Prime Minister. And if you were in any doubt, the enthusiastic cheers and applause greeting the speech's climax from the Conservative benches underlines how off course Hilary and all the Labour MPs who voted with him were. If the Tories are in raptures over your contribution and, reportedly, were queuing up to have him autograph their order papers, something is very, very wrong.
Hilary Benn made a good speech. That didn't stop it being an appalling speech.