Over the past few weeks, rumours have swirled in Westminster that the Labour party has acquired a new leader — that John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, has almost completed a long, stealthy campaign having stolen more and more power from his beleaguered and exhausted boss. While there has been no announcement, plenty in the party believe that there certainly has been regime change: Corbyn in office, but McDonnell in power.
While Corbyn has always seemed like an eccentric grandad who potters about in his allotment, there is something steely and not altogether comforting about McDonnell. Even though he gives broadcast interviews from his sitting room, which looks like the backdrop to a Werther’s Original ad, and even though his soft and sorrowful voice makes him sound like an uncle giving the eulogy at the funeral of a much-loved family pet, McDonnell can’t quite hide a faint air of menace. When he recently mused about what might happen ‘If Jeremy got hit by the No. 57 bus’, this well-known political phrase didn’t sound quite as hypothetical as it normally does.
It would take an unusually menacing twist for the shadow chancellor to turn on his ‘best friend’ of several decades. But the struggle takes many forms. Last week Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy, and his political secretary, Amy Jackson, were moved out of his parliamentary office and sent to work at Labour headquarters instead. A gentle purge of Corbyn’s wider office may soon be under way, with more than 30 staff summoned to informal interviews with Sir Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service (and McDonnell ally). This is supposedly part of a review into ‘management systems’ — a review that’s likely to find that the Labour HQ has too many chiefs, so more senior heads need to roll. Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s highly influential director of communications, is next on McDonnell’s hit list.
Many in Corbyn’s team accept that the game is up, and welcome what McDonnell is doing. They worry more about how the party will do in a general election and regard McDonnell as hard-working and effective. ‘He really wants to get things done,’ says one aide. ‘He’s clearly not plotting against Jeremy, he just sometimes thinks things move a bit slowly. He has very little time for the current bureaucratic processes, which stop things happening in a timely fashion.’ Those ‘bureaucratic processes’ are often devices for delay created by Corbynites who fear that they’ll be out of a job if their boss goes.
At the peak of their powers, Murphy, Jackson and Milne controlled Corbyn so effectively that it was very difficult for anyone else to get access to him — let alone persuade him of their point of view on Brexit, how to handle anti-Semitism or foreign affairs.
It also meant the trio could claim to speak on Corbyn’s behalf without anyone knowing that they were in fact advancing their own agendas. ‘They were routinely misleading colleagues, telling other people: “Well, Jeremy is taking this decision.” But when John asked Jeremy himself, it turned out he wasn’t,’ says one Labour insider.
McDonnell has been increasingly irritated by the way Corbyn’s advisers handled the anti-Semitism row and the Salisbury attack last year. He no longer attempts to conceal his frustration about Corbyn’s ambiguous stance on Brexit: he has now won his fight to nudge the party off the fence, so that it is better prepared to fight Remain-voting seats.
But time after time, he has come up against Murphy, Milne and Jackson. Or did, before he managed to get Murphy and Jackson moved out of Labour HQ. Milne has proven the hardest to dislodge. McDonnell seems to have given up trying to depose Milne and instead now seeks to contain him, having him restricted to his communications role — and all but ending his influence on party policy.
But there is no coup de grâce. McDonnell’s manoeuvrings appear far more geared towards controlling Corbyn than replacing him. There is no evidence that he really wants to take a shot at the king, let alone seize the throne himself. ‘Deep down, John thinks that if we can get back to the Jeremy of 2015 — when he was on the campaign trail and all that sort of thing — then we can get back to a winning position,’ one party worker remarks. ‘John has this slightly rose-tinted, romantic notion that we can turn the clock back, despite everything that’s happened since.’
But if he can’t magic back the old Corbyn, what will McDonnell do? Like everyone else in the party, he is preoccupied with the succession and is expected to endorse Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left-wing shadow business secretary. She’ll face stiff competition from Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, who has taken great care to parade her Remainer credentials. Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, meanwhile, has started giving wide-ranging interviews about his ‘backstory’. (He needs to work a little harder on his ‘outsider’ credentials. He recently told a meeting of Labour activists that he couldn’t be considered a member of the north London set because his parents lived on the Surrey/Kent border. While true, it doesn’t exactly scream viva la revolution.)
A sympathetic colleague says McDonnell sees himself as being ‘a new father figure for the party’, which would fit his Werther’s Original persona. But whoever does take over from Corbyn will find him a pretty strict parent, keen to make sure that the right sort of people are in control.