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14 October 2019

Is John McDonnell planning to dislodge Jeremy Corbyn?

A controversial GQ interview and the ousting of Karie Murphy has some Corbyn staffers worried that a purge is underway.

By Stephen Bush

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. In this case, the lord in question is Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service who has been working with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on the party’s preparations for government and on how to reform its institutional structures.

It was Kerslake, in his 2016 initial review into how Corbyn’s office operated, who recommended that he needed someone to serve as his “representative on Earth”: to run the office and to act as his gatekeeper. The Labour leader originally disliked the idea but, having been sold on it, offered the position first to Kerslake, who declined on the grounds of age. It was then given to Karie Murphy, who was last week moved out of the leader’s office and into the party’s headquarters.

That Kerslake has known John McDonnell for decades – the former began his civil service career working for the Greater London Council, where the latter was then finance chief – points the finger of blame at McDonnell. There are fears within the leader’s office that Murphy’s ouster is a precursor to a wider purge of the office, after 37 members of Corbyn’s staff were asked to attend informal meetings about their role and the office’s structure.

This, added to McDonnell’s recent decision to sit down for an interview with Alastair Campbell for GQ magazine, in which he said that he and Corbyn would have to resign if the party lost the next election and talked about the positives of Tony Blair’s domestic record, has some Corbynites worried: is McDonnell planning to dislodge Corbyn, whether in practice or in fact?

The reality is that people are putting two and two together and making five. Labour’s shadow chancellor has long regarded acting as Corbyn’s vanguard as part of his external role – to roll the pitch for positions that the Labour leadership will later occupy, whether to make internal defeat seem like victory or out of a sincere conviction that he is setting out where Labour needs to go – and his GQ interview was typical of that.

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He has also been a long-term critic of what some see as Murphy’s increasing encroachment into political advice outside of office management. However, the move against Murphy was not a McDonnell solo project or anything like it. All of Labour’s “Big Three” – the three shadow cabinet ministers to back Corbyn in 2015 and to serve continuously in his top team, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, and Jon Trickett – have privately urged Corbyn to sideline his former chief of staff.

That they have succeeded in winning the Labour leader over at the same time as McDonnell’s latest email has people seeing a grand plan where there are in fact two separate strategies: a long-term, broadly shared view among Corbyn’s parliamentary allies that Murphy’s wings needed to be clipped, and McDonnell’s personal belief about how best to manage the media.