Video: A clip from John McDonnell’s appearance on The Andrew Marr Show this morning
Joff Wild on how Theresa May could simultaneously increase the Tory majority and save the Labour Party from Corbyn
John McDonnell’s appearance on the Andrew Marr Show this morning was among the most extraordinary television interventions that a senior politician has made in recent years. During the course of the interview, McDonnell explained how the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, did not understand the party’s policy proposals on pharmaceutical research and taxation incentives; and issued an unprecedented to-the-camera appeal for Labour unity, just a couple of weeks after telling leadership candidate Owen Smith and others that he did not care if the party split, and calling Labour MPs “fucking useless” at a Corbyn rally in Kentish Town.
McDonnell also gave what could turn out to be several hostages to fortune in his account of what happened when Karie Murphy – a senior Corbyn aide and the woman until now best known for her part in the Falkirk selection controversy – accessed Seema Malhotra’s Parliamentary office without permission; something that Malhotra has written a formal complaint to the Speaker’s office about. McDonnell made a series of specific claims about what occurred that will undoubtedly be disputed by Malhotra and her team. If these claims turn out to be incorrect, then the trip that close Len McCluskey ally and friend Murphy made down the corridor from the leader’s office may turn into Labour’s very own mini-Watergate.
But perhaps the most important section of the interview came right at the end. Thus was when Marr asked McDonnell whether he and Corbyn would resign if they led Labour to defeat at the next general election. Yes, McDonnell said, they would. As far as I know this is the first time that either he or Corbyn has said such a thing in public. That makes it extremely significant.
Should Corbyn beat Owen Smith’s challenge to him in September, as is widely expected, the next step in the hard left’s takeover of Labour is likely to be to seek the mandatory reselection of MPs. That, it is thought, will give Corbyn supporters among Labour’s membership the chance to get rid of those who have not shown sufficient loyalty to the leader and to replace them with candidates who can be expected to toe the line.
However, Labour’s constitution has many moving parts, making it difficult to change existing rules. First, proposals have to be submitted to the NEC, which then decides whether they should be put in front of conference. If the NEC agrees, then only a year later will conference get a vote. Thus, if the NEC agrees this year that reselection should be put to conference, at the earliest MPs are looking at possible deselection in 2018. However, as recent events have shown, it is highly unlikely that Corbyn has the votes on the current NEC to get this through. That may changes after the NEC elections have taken place, but would mean a conference vote only in two years’ time and reselections in 2019.
All this, though, is probably academic. By 2018, the new Parliamentary boundaries are likely to be in place, meaning a different set of MP selection rules will apply. These will be decided by Labour’s chief whip Rosie Winterton, who does not sit on the hard left wing of the party.
Thus, should Theresa May call a general election sometime between now and 2018, it is highly likely that the Labour MPs currently in place will be the ones fighting it for the party. If, as the polls suggest, the Tories win handsomely some of those MPs may lose their seats. However, assuming that McDonnell is not being economical with the truth (and, of course, that cannot be ruled out) both he and Corbyn will step down from their roles. That will leave the PLP to decide who should slug it out for the leadership. Given that it is certain that no-one is going to lend a hard left candidate his or her vote ever again, that means it will be very difficult for such a candidate to be put in front of the membership, which – in any case – will also be contemplating in the starkest way possible the electoral reality of putting its faith in Jeremy Corbyn.
So, consider this: Theresa May has a wafer thin Tory majority and the first signs of possible dissent on the party’s right are now beginning to emerge. May knows that if she goes to the country sooner rather than later, she will beat a Corbyn-led Labour party comfortably and substantially increase her majority. This would make her awkward squad much less of a problem and give her a whole lot more room for manoeuvre. Normally, this scenario would terrify Labour MPs, but if May does pull the trigger early it may actually prove to be their party’s salvation: Corbyn and McDonnell would be gone and the PLP would get to decide the candidates to replace them. A return to sanity and the long process of rebuilding Labour as a potential party of government could begin.
Theresa May has it in her hands not only to win a major general election victory for the Conservative party, but also to restore Labour to being a party whose primary aim is to achieve power through Parliament. That would be quite a legacy.