He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. It’s not a lot of fun being John McDonnell in the week before the budget. Though the shadow chancellor knows he’s got to come up with a few economic policies, he understands only too well it’s a pointless exercise. When the Labour leader’s own advisers are briefing that the party has no chance of winning the 2020 general election, it’s hard to position yourself as a government in waiting.
There was an air of melancholy as McDonnell began listing his budget demands in a speech at London’s Southbank centre. He couldn’t even be totally sure that the few dozen Labour activists were really paying much attention, let alone anyone in the rest of the country. But needs must. On the positive side, if he was to find he had said something he later disagreed with, there was a good chance he could dissociate himself from it without anyone noticing.
His wish list was hardly controversial. What he wanted was proper funding for the NHS and social care, protection for families from rising living costs and to stop women bearing the brunt of austerity cuts. Who wouldn’t want that? It was just there was a massive credibility gap. McDonnell paused and looked up, searching for even one person in the audience who might believe he really was the person who could take on the Tories and win. He soon gave up. The bar was just too high. If he didn’t really think he could do it, why should anyone else?
McDonnell returned to his script. He’d started so he would finish. Labour would build a million homes, the Tories were killing 30,000 people a year through NHS cuts, and the tax avoiders and evaders would be made to pay their dues. “We can turn this country round,” he concluded. “That’s our mission.” It was a rallying cry that was delivered with a howl of despair. Even on a good day, the shadow chancellor tends to speak in a deadpan monotone; here the defeatism and depression in his voice went undisguised. If only he was alone. Then no one could hear him scream.
The questions provided little comfort, with no one really bothering to engage with the content of what he had said. It had all been little more than white noise to fill the void of the previous 20 minutes. All anyone really wanted to know about was the divisions within Labour. Worrying about what the party might conceivably do in 2025 was an existential concern too far when the Tories hadn’t yet even begun to deal with Brexit and the party had been unable to hold what ought to have been a safe seat in the previous week’s byelection.
What did he think of the so-called soft coup? For the first time, McDonnell showed flashes of animation. He’d been annoyed by Tony Blair’s speech and Peter Mandelson talking about how he worked to undermine Jeremy Corbyn every day. But that was last week. Now he’d seen the light. “I know I’ve got a pugnacious approach,” he said, “and I’ve got to calm down a bit. We need to unite the party.”
Easier said than done when the divisions in the party were less about policy and more about the leader. And the leader had made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But McDonnell was determined to offer an olive branch. “We need to talk to everyone,” he observed. Even Peter Mandelson? McDonnell gritted his teeth. Yup. “I’d have a cup of tea with him.” Polonium tea?
“Peter and I worked for the TUC in our youth,” he continued. “Though perhaps we learned different lessons from the experience.” But let bygones be bygones. Peter had had the odd good idea in the past and he had gone to hear him speak in the Brexit debate in the Lords and was with him on the need to remain in the single market. “Yes,” he repeated. “I look forward to that cup of tea.”
McDonnell did a quick double take, not quite able to believe what he had just said. Having a cup of tea with Mandy? What was he thinking of? Labour must be in an even worse state than he had realised.