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24 October 2019

Labour MPs face a moment of truth on John McDonnell

The PLP has been furiously lobbying the shadow chancellor to stop Corbyn agreeing to a snap election. Will he?

By Patrick Maguire

Labour MPs who wish to avoid a snap election have pinned their hopes on an unlikely saviour: John McDonnell. 

For weeks, the PLP’s many election sceptics have been lobbying the shadow chancellor – as well as their whips – to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from agreeing to any snap poll before Brexit is resolved. “Everyone is turning to or texting John for support,” says one Remainer on the soft left. “It’s weird. But we are truly down the rabbit hole now.”

Even those who loathe McDonnell’s politics and distrust him personally have made entreaties. Remainers in the PLP have come to the same conclusion as shadow cabinet opponents of a second referendum: they believe that McDonnell thinks Labour can only win an election if it looks and sounds like a Remain party, and that he is acting accordingly. MPs who want a second referendum before an election, or simply no election at all, think he understands why. 

Their judgement is broadly correct. But it doesn’t follow that McDonnell will inevitably accede to their appeals. More often than not, the shadow chancellor’s emollience is about making life easier for Corbyn, not Labour MPs. 

Indeed, earlier today he spoke enthusiastically of fighting an election in December. “I’m always up for an election… I’ve ordered a winter coat,” he told reporters in Westminster. He also stressed, however, that his first priority was securing more parliamentary time to scrutinise the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – something Johnson has since offered, albeit on the condition that an election follows. 

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One of the oddest side effects of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been the extent to which it has rehabilitated McDonnell, once loathed by most Labour MPs, in the eyes of a despairing PLP. If Jeremy Corbyn agrees to a snap election in spite of their concerns, they could soon be disabused of the consoling fiction that they can rely on McDonnell to act as a check on the leadership’s bad judgement.