UK Politics

Could Hilary Benn really be on the front and backbenches?

Hilary Benn with Jeremy Corbyn behind Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hilary Benn's speech had many MPs clapping, but not his own party leader

Could shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn really speak from the back benches next time he disagrees with Jeremy Corbyn?

The problem

Hilary Benn made a barnstorming speech in favour of bombing Syria, while his boss Jeremy Corbyn, who disagreed with him, sat rather stony faced on the front bench behind him. Even though Labour MPs had been given a "free vote" on the issue, to allow the expression of opposing views, it screamed "split". A majority of Labour MPs voted with Corbyn, but Benn got a rare round of applause in the Commons and the plaudits of the nation's media pundits.

The solution

After much tortuous reshuffle negotiation, and speculation that he would be sacked, a compromise appeared to have been reached with Mr Benn. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told the Today programme: "When it comes down to future debates we won't have a situation where he will be speaking from the front bench when there is a major disagreement on policy and where the Parliamentary Labour Party is in the majority against him." Mr Corbyn will speak from the front bench and "if there is a disagreement and people on a free vote want to express their views, they will do it from the back benches," he explained.

Is it a deal though?

Hilary Benn insists he hasn't been "muzzled" and his team are briefing that there has been no deal. It is also worth stressing that it would that it would only apply in free votes, which are pretty rare. In a normal whipped vote, any shadow minister who fancied speaking out against the leader's position, would still have to resign or be sacked. Those are the rules.

The precedents

It is not unprecedented for ministers, or shadow ministers, to speak from the backbenches, but it is normally on constituency matters or issues that are not part of their brief. No one can recall a frontbencher returning temporarily to the back benches to make a speech on something that they are meant to be leading on.

The potential pitfalls

John McDonnell suggested in a BBC News Channel interview that Mr Benn could emulate himself and Mr Corbyn, who spent their lengthy careers to this point speaking from the back benches, often against their party leader. Not to be uncharitable to the pair, but hardly anyone in the media was interested when they did it. But if a senior figure like Mr Benn did it, it would almost certainly become the story. Conservative MPs would be beside themselves with glee.

Could the Conservatives be next?

David Cameron has decided to give his ministers the freedom to campaign for either side in the EU referendum in "a personal capacity". No one has said anything about Tory ministers making speeches on Europe from the back benches, if they disagree with the government's official view, but it would be one way round the problem....

More on this story