Syria Debate Creates New Star, but more Problems for UK's Labor
An electrifying speech on Syria air strikes by the foreign affairs spokesman of Britain's Labor party brought together rival MPs in an emotional display but shone a spotlight on the opposition's deep divisions.
The House of Commons fell silent as Hilary Benn implored MPs to approve the government's plan for air strikes on Islamic State jihadists in Syria, to which his party leader Jeremy Corbyn is opposed.
"We are here faced by fascists," he told lawmakers.
"They hold our values in contempt, they hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt, they hold our democracy in contempt.
"What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated," he said.
As the 62-year-old returned to his seat next to a grim-faced Corbyn, both sides of the House of Commons broke out into a rare round of applause with members shouting "more" and some even reduced to tears, according to Labor MP Angela Smith.
Conservative Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called it "one of the truly great speeches" in parliamentary history, a view echoed by commentators and politicians of all stripes.
"It is about to become the House of Commons 'where were you when Kennedy was shot' moment," Labor-supporting journalist Dan Hodges wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
"It was a truly incredible moment. Hilary Benn did not look like the shadow foreign secretary. He did not look like the leader of the opposition. He looked like the prime minister."
But Benn's new-found authority poses a clear threat to Corbyn's embattled leadership, an ironic twist given that Benn's father Tony was both a political hero and close friend of the Labor chief.
Wednesday's speech had striking similarities to one given in parliament by his socialist father the year after the Gulf War in 1991 -- except that Benn senior was mounting an impassioned plea against war.
Corbyn's victory in September's leadership race, thanks to support from grassroot activists, sparked a battle for control within Labor between his leftist allies and party moderates, who now have a figure to unite around.
"Hilary Benn offers hope to the party," former policy strategist for ex-prime minister Tony Blair and moderate John McTernan told AFP.
The speech puts Benn "in pole position to be a future leader" of the party, added McTernan, a critic of Corbyn's leadership.
"I've known him since he was an advisor, I wasn't surprised but it's great the country has seen what a potentially great leader he would make."
However, any move to depose Corbyn will be vehemently opposed by the party members, 66 percent of whom believe he is doing "well" in his role, according to a recent poll.
The issue of war and terrorism has laid bare the divisions, with Corbyn being forced to allow his MPs a free vote on air strikes as all-out conflict threatened to break out in the party.
Corbyn supporters have accused Benn of "undermining" the leader and positioning himself as a potential replacement during the build-up to Wednesday's vote.
British bookmakers slashed the odds on Benn being the next Labor leader to 3/1 from 25/1 just two weeks ago.
The issue also sparked bitter debate on social media, with both sides accusing the other of personal abuse.
A stark example of the disunity came as MPs prepared to vote, when protesters from Stop the War, a group previously chaired by Corbyn, chanted "Hilary Benn, shame on you!" outside parliament.
Corbyn's authority will be tested again later Thursday when voters in Oldham, northwest England, elect a new MP after the death of Labor incumbent Michael Meacher in October.
The party is expected to hold the seat, and a solid majority in the first public vote since becoming Labor leader would bolster Corbyn's position.
But any significant loss of support would sharpen the knives of his critics in Westminster.