How shadow chancellor morphed from shady Trot to business's BFF

Repeat after me, John: ‘We love the customs union, we love the customs union ... ’ Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

No speaker could have asked for better warm-up acts. Both Liam Fox and Rebecca Long-Bailey had been greeted in near silence as they opened the annual conference of the British Chambers of Commerce. Long-Bailey because no one – not even herself – really seemed to know who she was and Fox because everyone knew precisely who he was.

After a much-needed coffee break, the chief executive of an energy company then put everyone into a coma by talking repeatedly of “prosumers”. No one had a clue what he was talking about. Or cared, for that matter. A woman in front of me turned to her colleague and said: “Much more of this bloke and I’ll celebrate International Women’s Day by going shopping.”

So the stage was set for John McDonnell. Thanks both to the government’s apparent insistence on pursuing a hard Brexit and the Labour party’s recent enthusiasm for remaining in a customs union, the shadow chancellor has morphed from being an untrustworthy Trot to the businessperson’s friend and saviour. It’s an unlikely transformation that appears to have taken McDonnell by surprise every bit as much as it has small business leaders.

The shadow chancellor started off by talking about the need for women to break “the glass seagull” – shades of Eric Cantona at his most cryptic – before going on to say how much he loved small businesses. His audience momentarily purred. If he had left it at that, along with a brief reference to how Labour would give them the Brexit they wanted, he might have left to a standing ovation.

Instead, he went into a mini-rant about the evils of banks and large corporations. Neither of which small businesses have any great affection for, but nor were they what anyone had particularly come to engage with. They can moan about those things quite easily on their own. What they wanted was reassurance and plenty more strokes. The romance between McDonnell and small business is still at a tender stage and loud and frequent expressions of devotion are still both expected and required. They’re still dating but no one is certain the relationship will last.

The final speaker before the lunch break was the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, who has made a career of never making concessions to anyone. When she looked out at the BCC delegates from the conference stage, what she saw was a bunch of spineless wimps who were so busy moaning about the difficulties of Brexit that they were blind to its possibilities. She was there to inject a “can-do” spirit.

Brexit was a done deal, she said. So people just had to stop living in the past. Even for Foster, this was a bit brazen as few people have spent more time living in the past than the DUP. Only it’s a highly selective version of the past. Foster came across quite powerfully when she spoke of the IRA shooting her father and blowing up her school bus, and she was clearly in no mood to forget.

Other than about the things she was quite happy to forget about. How Northern Ireland had voted to remain in the EU. How the DUP had always vehemently opposed the Good Friday agreement she now apparently found herself so keen to preserve. How she wanted Northern Ireland to be subject to exactly the same rules and regulations as the rest of the UK apart from stuff like abortion and same-sex marriage. Things like that.

She also forgot to mention just how she imagined a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic might work without a customs union. Though to be fair, that’s something the prime minister and every member of the cabinet also seem to regularly forget.

“Any questions?” asked the BCC host presenter nervously. No one said a word at first. There’s something so unbending about Foster that brooks no challenge. Eventually someone came up with something about the EU, that Foster batted away dismissively. Then she was gone and the conference delegates finally dared to draw breath. The past – like Foster’s Northern Ireland – really is another country.

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