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14 February 2019

The Churchill debate is masking the actually interesting part of John McDonnell’s interview

It’s about Brexit, obviously. 

By Stephen Bush

 Winston Churchill, hero or villain?

That’s the big talking point out of John McDonnell’s interview with Politico, after the shadow chancellor, during a series of quickfire questions (you know, beer or wine, boxers or briefs, that kind of thing) was asked that very question and responded: “Tonypandy. Villain.”, in reference to Churchill’s handling of an industrial dispute during his time as home secretary under HH Asquith.

It’s overshadowed the more consequential part of McDonnell’s sitdown chat, where he conceded that Labour’s hopes of forcing an early election before the end of the Brexit process are receding and that the only route out of the Brexit crisis is either no Brexit or a Brexit deal facilitated by Labour MPs.

The biggest division between McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn is that the shadow chancellor believes that part of the role of leadership is to prepare the ground for shifts in approach or strategy, while Corbyn doesn’t.

The number of Conservative MPs who privately say they would vote in any way possible to prevent a no-deal Brexit is larger than the number required to wipe out the Conservative-DUP majority (and even the Conservative-DUP majority plus Ivan Lewis and John Woodcock, who both abstained on the last confidence vote but whose votes could be up for grabs in another). Yet that this group haven’t already done so – particularly when Downing Street’s Brexit strategy is explicitly to force a choice between May’s deal and the cliff – is a pretty good indicator that they never will.

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May is not going to get any concessions on the Irish border big enough to pass her deal with the votes of the Conservatives and the DUP alone, not least because her European counterparts have lost faith in her word and her political instincts.

So how to resolve the deadlock? The Guardian reports that ten frontbenchers have warned Corbyn they will resign and return to the backbenches if the party doesn’t support a second referendum.

But the reality is that even if Corbyn wanted to support a second referendum, there simply isn’t a credible path to one at present. There’s a reason why Yvette Cooper – herself one of the Labour MPs who has promised her constituents that she will never vote to block Brexit – has delayed her amendment to request an Article 50 extension if the UK has not agreed a deal by mid-March: neither she, nor anyone who has seriously looked at the parliamentary picture, believes it could pass the House of Commons today, thanks to a combination of Labour rebels and Conservative stay-behinds. A parliament that won’t vote to prevent a cliff-edge Brexit with 43 days until we are due to leave the European Union is not going to come around to another referendum before 29 March 2019.

So what’s going to happen? The legal default is no deal but one reason why so few at Westminster expect that to happen is the assumption that if May succeeds in her aim of keeping control of the Brexit process, a critical mass of Labour MPs, whether with the sanction of the party leadership or not, will vote to prevent the cliff-edge. Even committed supporters of the People’s Vote campaign, will privately acknowledge that if it comes to the end of March, they will vote for the deal to prevent no deal.

On the Peston programme last night, Jess Phillips became, by my count, the first pro-second referendum MP to say that publicly and on the record.  The, uh, mixed reaction to that interview would worry me were I sitting in Jeremy Corbyn’s shoes. While the various participants in Labour’s civil war will of course blame the PLP or the Labour leadership, most people will just see that eventuality as Labour – not Corbyn’s Labour, not Phillips’ Labour, just Labour – facilitating Brexit.

And that’s where that failure to prepare the ground for a scenario in which Labour MPs end up voting for or otherwise facilitating Brexit might well do a lot more damage to Corbyn and McDonnell’s hopes of entering Downing Street than McDonnell’s feelings about Winston Churchill.