Fact or Fiction? Hilary Benn
Published by Julien Tremblin for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Featured, Local Government
Fact or Fiction? Hilary Benn
To mark the appointment of Hilary Benn as Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, our celebrated 'Fact or Fiction?' series offers you 10 ‘facts’ about the much-loved Labour MP and ask you to work out which should be sent to the backbenches.
1. Named after a girl
Backs in the austere 1950s when there weren’t that many names to go round, boys and girls would often be forced to share. During this period names such as Lesley, Francis and Hilary became increasingly popular, all with subtle changes to differentiate which sex was being referred to. The name Hilary derives from the Latin word ‘hilarius’, meaning cheerful. Other famous men who share the same name are Dr Hilary Jones and, erm, that’s about it.
2. Protector of fox and badger
During his time as Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn managed to anger countryside campaign groups by rejecting a nationwide badger cull and being a highly vocal supporter of the Labour Government’s decision to ban fox hunting. To the fury of farmers, Benn repeatedly resisted the call to cull badgers until there was ‘scientific proof’ that there was a direct link between the woodland animal and the spread of bovine tuberculosis. He also took great pleasure in regularly antagonising the pro-hunt lobby by dismissing their ‘sport’ as having ‘no place in a civilised society’.
3. Teetotaller and vegetarian
Much to the frustration of the muck-raking tabloid press, Benn has always been considered something of a saint. He told the Guardian back in 2006: “I’m not a natural rebel” and went on to prove the point by revealing his favourite pastimes were watching sport on television and gardening. Like his father Tony, Hilary is also a teetotaller (because he doesn’t like the taste of alcohol) and a vegetarian (thanks to the influence of his first wife). His aversion to drink does has its benefits, however. “It makes me handy for driving and it makes me very popular for giving people lifts. It makes me a more socially useful individual,” he explains.
4. Rubbishes Eric Pickles over waste
Although new to Communities and Local Government, Benn has previous form with his Tory opposite number Eric Pickles, particularly on the subject of waste. In an article for the Guardian (can you see a trend emerging here?), he took Pickles to task over his ‘much-vaunted type of localism’ that dictated to councils how often they should collect their rubbish rather than leave it to local authorities to decide for themselves. This, of course, was a direct reference to Pickles’ long-running campaign to bring back weekly bin collections. The pair’s history should make for some interesting exchanges in the House of Commons.
5. Tipped as future Labour leader
We all know that Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail’s political sketch writer, is a fan of Grant Shapps, but despite his political leanings to the right, he is also a great admirer of Hilary Benn. In fact, such is his love for this ‘witty, thoughtful, topical, charming,’ politician he has even tipped him as a replacement for the much derided Ed Miliband. In his usual gushing prose, Letts states: “He is clever. He is fluent at the despatch box. He speaks the Queen’s English despite his Yorkshire seat. He is enough of a Blairite to mount a decent counter-attack to seize the centre ground. Yet he could surely, with his father’s support, win support from the trade unions. Hilary Benn for Labour leader. The campaign starts here.”
6. Benn not Bennite
As alluded to by Mr Letts, Hilary is considered very much of the ‘New Labour’ mould in his political outlook despite his popularity with the Left of the party because of his family ties. In the past he has summed up this position by saying “I am a Benn, but not a Bennite". That’s not to say that he isn’t close to his father. “I would have voted for my dad because he’s my dad. I’ve always supported him to the best of my ability and he’s always done the same to me.”
7. Lembit Opik look-a-like
Benn once took to the stage during a House of Commons talent contest pretending to be the former Lib Dem MP. After playing the harmonica for 10 minutes, he sang Lembit’s all-time favourite song ‘2 become 1’ by the Spice Girls. So impressed was Cheeky Girl Gabriela Irimia, she dumped Lembit on the spot. Sadly for her Hilary wasn’t interested.
8. Humpty Dumpty
Hilary’s first experience of the House of Commons was as a small fair-haired boy getting the chance to see where his father worked. In his diaries, Tony Benn recalls: “The two children (Hilary and brother Stephen) behaved simply beautifully…Those tiny heads with the hair so short just poked above the back of the seat and looked like two little eggs ready to fall just like Humpty Dumpty. We met a lot of people and went over to the Jewel Tower before we had strawberries and cream on the terrace. They were so excited.”
9. Tragic death of first wife
In 1973, while studying at the University of Sussex, Hilary married fellow student Rosalind Retey. Aged only 19, Rosalind was his childhood sweetheart. Tragically she died from lung cancer at the age of 26 just five years later. Hilary went on to marry his present wife Sally in 1982. They have four children.
10. Star of Ealing comedy
Before his conversion to ‘New’ Labour, Hilary Benn was considered part of the ‘Loony Left’ brigade at Ealing Council where he was deputy leader from 1986 to 1990. Commenting, the then Local Government Minister, Dr Rhodes Boyson, said: “Ealing is just one of a number of London boroughs that have recently fallen under the control of the hard Left. Once a haven of sensible Tory administration, it has now been infected by the Brent disease spreading across the Great West road and Whitton avenue. Hilary Benn and his cohorts are, by their antics giving new life and meaning to the noble traditions of Ealing comedy. Life in Ealing, once the heartland of fine old English comedy, has reverted to tragic farce.”
(Scroll down for the answer)
ANSWER: Number 7 was the work of fiction. Despite the uncanny resemblance, Hilary never appeared as Lembit in a House of Commons talent contest, nor did he sing ‘2 become 1’ by the Spice Girls despite it being Lembit’s favourite song. And as far as we are aware, he has never been propositioned by a Cheeky Girl.