Tony Benn: My fight with leukaemia

HE IS the socialist firebrand who terrified and then charmed the middle classes.

Now Tony Benn has produced another surprise: he has been suffering from leukaemia for more than 12 years.

The latest volume of his diaries details how Benn - who famously renounced his viscount title - was told in 1990 he had three years to live.

Benn writes movingly of the irony of still being alive more than a decade later while his beloved wife Caroline lost her life to a different form of cancer two years ago.

And he adds that the death of his wife and the end of his parliamentary career have left him free to attack the New Labour figures he blames for destroying a party he once loved.

Benn lambasts "medieval monarch" Tony Blair, "vacuous" Gordon Brown and "pompous" Robin Cook.

Benn, now 77, reveals he was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukaemia in 1990, and his doctors told him he had probably been suffering from the condition for some time.

They gave him three or at best four years to live, leaving him in a quandary about the ethics of standing again for parliament.

He decided to keep the news of his leukaemia from everyone except his immediate family.

"When you’re in parliament, you can’t describe your medical condition. People immediately start wondering what your majority is and when there will be a by-election. They’re very brutal."

He added: "I asked my doctors before every General Election whether it would be responsible for me to stand again."

But his condition did not worsen, and although he still has regular check-ups, the most recent prognosis was optimistic.

"They are satisfied I will die with it, but not of it," he said.

Benn recounts how, as his own death sentence appeared to lift, he nursed Caroline through terminal breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 1996 and later given six months to live.

The new diaries - Free at Last - reveal how he sought to make her life as comfortable as possible, organising visiting hairdressers and bringing romantic breakfast trays laid with roses.

Benn also maintained his sense of humour in the last days. He said that soon after he had commissioned a bronze head of Caroline to be placed on her grave, an old friend rang to ask how Caroline was.

"I said, ‘Well, she can’t talk to you now. She’s getting her bust done.’ And he said, ‘What? At her age?’"

He described the moment he and the couple’s four children, Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua, gathered around her bedside and he said to her: "Darling, we’re all here. You can let go now, if you want." She died in November 2000.

He admitted his life was now sometimes lonely, and his home in Notting Hill, London, is still full of memories of Caroline.

The stair lift he bought when she became paralysed from the waist down in her last months is still in the hall, and the dress she wore for her engagement hangs in a wardrobe. He has thrown almost nothing away, including 40 boxes of her papers and thousands of letters of condolence.

Benn, who was yesterday taking part in the march through London against war with Iraq, gave up his Chesterfield seat at the last General Election, partly because he wanted to be free of political constraints. That has allowed the diaries to reveal the depth of his anger at New Labour and its leading figures.

He describes Robin Cook as "an angry little man" and "so pompous" after failing to secure the party leadership.

Gordon Brown is "unfit to run a corner shop". And Tony Blair "has behaved like a medieval monarch. He acts like a king who just wants us to obey him."

Benn describes one prime ministerial speech as "a mixture of Billy Graham and Prince Charles", and another is compared to a sales manager’s pep talk to his regional staff.

"I hope the way in which they control people is made clear," Benn said. "New Labour is not a party of which I am a member."

Since retiring Benn has transformed himself from the doyen of the left to the darling of the middle classes.

First elected in 1950 aged only 25, and famously radical from the moment he renounced his family title, Viscount Stansgate, he has spent most of the last 20 years as a symbol of rigidly red Old Labour. But now surveys reveal him to be the politician young people of all parties find the most honest, and his one-man roadshow, in which he answers questions from the audience, has proved a hit with many of those who once feared his views.

It played to full houses at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

Blair’s government was also lambasted yesterday by Martin Sixsmith, the former transport department spin-doctor forced out after a row that led to the resignation of colleague Jo Moore.

Sixsmith said at a time when Britain stands on the brink of war with Iraq, Blair’s government "is not to be trusted".

He said Alastair Campbell "decides what ministers say - including the Prime Minister," and added: "The Prime Minister and his chief spinner, Campbell, have both said the time may have come to put behind them the techniques that served them so well in opposition."

But, said Sixsmith, when an "inveterate liar" says he will stop lying, doubts are natural.