In February, a member of John McDonnell’s team accidentally forwarded his diary to a Labour party colleague. The errant email has been a source of gossip among Corbynistas ever since. Among the mundane schedule of meetings were a series of slots allocated for something rather out of the ordinary: ‘Transition planning.’ McDonnell’s aides swear up and down that these meetings are nothing untoward and warn against ‘putting two and two together and coming up with a million’. But the fact that it even raised eyebrows is telling.
The red half of Westminster is rife with rumour that the shadow chancellor covets the Labour leadership — that behind the scenes a repeat of the Blair-Brown psychodrama is being played out, a sort of comic version of the TeeBeeGeeBees. McDonnell even tweeted a denial: ‘Media and right-wing dirty tricks and lies trying to divide me and Jeremy’ — which only fanned the flames of parliamentary scuttlebutt. And he nervously laughed off questions from the BBC: ‘Jeremy is my closest friend in politics for over 30 years. What do I have to do, have a civil partnership with him?’ Yet for key players across the party, from friends of Corbyn to MPs and shadow cabinet colleagues, the denials are simply not believed. ‘The long-term plan is without question for John McDonnell to take over,’ claims a senior Labour MP. ‘That’s definitely what they’re planning.’ A second backbencher says: ‘There’s a sense that he’s done a deal with Corbyn and that at some point Jeremy would hand over to McDonnell. It’s almost universally accepted.’ A third confirms: ‘The general perception is that he’s limbering himself up to be there if Corbyn is challenged.’
If the rise of Corbyn was hard for outsiders to understand, it would be even more mystifying if a man with McDonnell’s baggage were to lead the Labour party. A lecturer at Brunel University recalls that as a student he was a Trotskyite. ‘Anyone thinking today that he was a hard, humourless and determined left-winger would recognise the John who was our student at Brunel,’ he says. A long-term friend says in his defence: ‘John may have been [a Trot], but it was 40 years ago when he was a teenager.’
McDonnell infamously praised the ‘bombs and bullets’ of the IRA, though his links to Irish republicanism › go deeper than words. A party grandee shares a curious tale from the 1980s. The story goes that McDonnell used to frequent a working men’s club in Camden which was known as a hub of IRA activity at the time. He was said to be so pally with the republicans who drank there that it allegedly led to him being given the nickname ‘The Quartermaster’. The joke among local Labour figures was that he was so involved he must have had his own quasi-military rank. His spokesman does not deny he was a regular visitor, but says: ‘It may have been a nickname for him as he was resourceful and in charge of budgets at the GLA.’
McDonnell’s opposition to the peace process was troubling even for Sinn Fein. Sources in both Ireland and the Labour party recall senior Shinners pleading with Tony Blair’s government to keep McDonnell quiet because his rhetoric was discouraging hardliners from accepting a deal. ‘An assembly is not what people have laid down their lives for over 30 years,’ McDonnell told An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein’s newspaper, in 1998. DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds warns: ‘If we think Corbyn is bad, McDonnell is a much more sinister character with a much deeper attachment to violent Irish republicanism. For those who stood by democracy during the Eighties and Nineties and tried to work for a peace process, there would be extreme anger at the idea of this man becoming leader of the Labour party.’
A Labour MP who represents a seat bombed by the IRA despairs: ‘What am I supposed to say when people who had family members killed by the IRA come up to me and say, “Your shadow chancellor said the bombs and bullets of the IRA were a good thing”? How can I tell them to vote for the Labour party?’
Corbyn and McDonnell remain friends. ‘There’s no Brown and Blair crap,’ insists a leading Corbynista. ‘Jeremy and John are still close.’ But Corbyn’s allies do believe his old comrade is laying the groundwork for a future bid. ‘I see it as unrequited love,’ says one. ‘John has run for leader twice and failed. Then his mate runs and gets it.’ And there are tensions. Briefings to the press from McDonnell’s aides have caused particular frustration. During the recent anti-Semitism row, journalists were told McDonnell was ‘furious’ at Corbyn’s delay in suspending Ken Livingstone. Sources close to the shadow chancellor then claimed the ensuing anti-Semitism inquiry was his idea, even though Corbyn’s aides had proposed it in a conference call hours earlier. ‘That did definitely cause difficulties between the two camps,’ reports a Labour MP. A shadow cabinet source is more pithy: ‘He and his team deliberately go out and say things that drop Jeremy in the shit.’
McDonnell’s team — and its rapidly expanding size — has attracted attention. In the early days of the Corbyn era, only a handful of people attended McDonnell’s shadow treasury meetings. ‘Now it’s a huge team,’ says a source. ‘All kinds of hangers-on, advisers, staff members — he runs a very serious operation now. There’s like 20-odd people in the room, whereas it used to be a very small number.’ Much of that operation is off the books, such as his ‘economics consultant’ James Meadway, a former member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers party who is ‘copied in on everything’ despite not being listed as an official aide. ‘The whole business of them operating off-grid,’ explains a shadow cabinet colleague, ‘that’s them basically organising his operation. He’s always around with some of the real hard-lefties. They think Corbyn’s weak, that he hasn’t been tough enough on a whole series of decisions. At some point he will say, “You’ve gotta go. I’m tougher.” ’
‘He is the power in the land,’ says a prominent MP. ‘Corbyn is a figurehead. All the key meetings… McDonnell is in there, well beyond his remit as shadow chancellor. You don’t have a meeting with Corbyn unless McDonnell is in the room.’
That domineering personality has manifested itself in another form. As an adviser tells me about how McDonnell treats members of Corbyn’s team, he suddenly leans forward and grabs my arm, pressing his fingers hard into my shoulder. ‘He does this,’ the aide explains. ‘He is actually physically intimidating. Staff have complained about it.’ One can only wonder what Corbyn’s 24 year-old son Seb, who works for McDonnell, makes of it. During team meetings Corbyn Junior rather sweetly refers to the Labour leader as ‘Dad’, telling other aides: ‘Dad thinks this, Dad wants to do this.’ Cute in more ways than one — some in the room see it as a deliberate reminder that a Corbyn is always watching.
McDonnell’s recent public personality transplant is a giveaway that he is on manoeuvres. Colleagues poke fun at his efforts to rehabilitate himself by touring television studios as a voice of moderation. ‘It’s a ludicrous attempt to portray himself as a born-again moderate and a sort of unifying figure,’ says one. ‘There’s a myth of McDonnell. He’s very smartly turned out, his tone is faux moderate, he lavishes faux praise on colleagues in the shadow cabinet. But every now and then you see the veil drop.’
Crucial to deciding who is the next Labour leader will be Momentum, the hard-left group which emerged from last year’s leadership campaign. In a significant endorsement, senior Momentum sources confirm that in an ‘under a bus’ scenario — were Corbyn to suddenly drop dead — McDonnell would be the left’s candidate to replace him. Senior figures in Momentum believe McDonnell is ‘more pragmatic’ than Corbyn and point to his record at the Greater London Council as evidence of leadership experience and an ability to work with people across the political range of the Labour party.
This might explain why McDonnell has been touring the country with Momentum. In the past six months, the shadow chancellor has attended more than 20 of the group’s events across Britain. Figures on the left and right of the party agree the tour is evidence of his ambitions. McDonnell’s unpopularity among the Parliamentary Labour Party means he will face a struggle to get on the ballot when Corbyn goes. This is where Momentum comes in, one MP explains: ‘They’ve got a list of MPs that they’re going to throw massive pressure and resources into their constituencies to try and force them to nominate John. They’re targeting 20 or 30 people.’ A second MP adds: ‘He’s happy for people who are his strong supporters in Momentum to go after MPs, he’s happy for the mob to go after colleagues. That’s his modus operandi.’
Jon Lansman, the chair of Momentum, denies McDonnell is using his group to plot against Corbyn: ‘If it was true I would know and therefore I know it’s not true. It can only be briefed by people who wish to make trouble.’ He adds: ‘We support both Jeremy and John and obviously they have different responsibilities and they have to use their time in different ways. We support both of them and we’re entirely happy with the relationship we have with both of them.’
There are obstacles to a coronation. ‘It’s not as straightforward as you would think,’ says the pollster Ian Warren, who has surveyed Labour members on McDonnell’s chances. ‘He has problems with the membership. If Corbyn were to go, lots of his supporters would leave the party. And McDonnell’s support is not as strong among Corbyn supporters.’
The hard left are fully signed up to the Cult of Jez, but are unconvinced by McDonnell. An MP says: ‘When you speak to members on the left, they won’t hear a word against Jeremy. Whereas a lot of them really don’t like John.’ A close friend admits: ‘He has enemies in the way Jeremy doesn’t, including on the left.’ Among them are trade union leaders, who for years have endured McDonnell trying to get Trots elected to their executives. The current consensus among the unions is that McDonnell would not be their choice for the next Labour leader.
Corbyn is stronger than ever, and a handover to McDonnell would only happen with his blessing — for now. But if called upon, the shadow chancellor is ready to lead. As one colleague puts it: ‘If you’ve been on the hard left of British politics it’s been a fairly leisurely existence. You represent a London seat, mid-morning you saunter down to some bespoke coffee house, speak at some demonstration where you’ll make the same speech to the same 60 nutters that you’ve done for the last 30 years. Jeremy now finds his new level of responsibility arduous and intrusive. Whereas John… he’s enjoying it. He’s been out in the cold for decades. He feels this is his time in the sun.’