When I joined the BBC in the 70s one of the senior writers was regarded a bit of legend for having spotted the start of Ping-Ping diplomacy – what the US official historian describes as “fraternization” between table tennis players from the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China during an international competition in Japan. It led eventually to the 1972 meeting between Nixon and Mao.
Not quite on the same epic scale but there are signs that a rapprochement might be possible at the top of the Labour party. The good news comes courtesy of a Twitter account Labour Friendliness.
It reports “They disagree on the leadership but @GloriaDePiero and @johnmcdonnellMP always ask if the other wants a coffee if they are doing a Costa run” De Piero confirms the story saying “never miss it.”
Labour activist Thelma Walker, former head teacher in Yorkshire liked this coffee cup diplomacy – she tweeted “We can get through this- both good people.”
Then on Sunday came talk of a truce with McDonnell saying nice things about Owen Smith. Speaking BBC Radio Five he said: ‘I have always looked upon him as a mate, I have always looked upon him as someone who is incredibly talented and someone who could, I think, make a major contribution.’
This is the same McDonnell who in the New Statesman, in August was accusing Smith of copying “cheap attacks made by Tory-supporting newspapers” of “smear tactics” and of a “Project Fear” approach of talking up a split”. His coffee mate De Piero is one of the most scathing critics of Jeremy Corbyn contributing to a Smith campaign video by former front benchers who resigned in frustration at his leadership failures.
McDonnell said his hopes that people will come together hang on the the phrase “what’s said on tour, remains on tour”
According to the Mail and the Telegraph the price of a truce for Corbyn, assuming he’s re-elected (an assumption I’ve made clear I don’t share) is the acceptance of elections to the Shadow cabinet.
Then, of course, the question would be not whether anti Corbyn big hitters would seek places on the front bench but whether McDonnell himself could get elected in a PLP where only one in five support Corbyn.
In my view, McDonnell on the front bench would be good for the party but it would take some intensive coffee cup diplomacy to make it happen.