11 Sep 2015

When Tony Blair nearly ended Jeremy Corbyn’s career

I’ve been taking a look at Tony Benn’s diary, and in particular the entry for 25 September 1996.  Tony Blair had already been Labour leader for two years, and was within months of Labour’s great victory in the 1997 general election.


Benn explains how the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was due to hold a press conference at the House of Commons to launch his book Before the Dawn.

The event had been organised by Jeremy Corbyn who had met Adams several times in the past, much to the dismay of Labour bigwigs.

But on this occasion Corbyn was suddenly told by Commons officials that it had to be cancelled because Westminster rules don’t allow commercial activities on the premises.

So Corbyn switched the press conference to the Irish Centre in Islington and arranged to go ahead with a simple meeting with Adams in the Commons at 9am the next day.

The story then exploded on the news, and Labour’s chief whip Donald Dewar issued a statement threatening disciplinary action against Corbyn.  So Benn told Dewar he’d be at the meeting with Adams too.

And later the BBC six o’clock news reported that Dewar would move to withdraw the whip from Corbyn and Benn.  The whole episode was described as “a test” of Blair’s leadership.  Benn accuses Peter Mandelson of stirring the whole issue in the press.

In the end Gerry Adams came to Corbyn’s  – and Benn’s (and arguably Blair’s) – aid and diplomatically withdrew from the meeting at the Commons.

Had Blair withdrawn the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, then he wouldn’t have been allowed to stand as a Labour candidate In Islington at the 1997 election.  He would almost certainly have lost his seat, and it would probably have been the end of his political career.

And ended any chance of taking the leadership himself 19 years later.

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