As Labour heads to conference, the scale of John McDonnell’s ambition is becoming clear

The “Corbyn project” could continue without Corbyn as leader but it is harder to imagine it succeeding without the shadow chancellor. 

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What is John McDonnell up to? That’s the question Labour’s salariat – its trade union officials, its MPs and its party staffers – are asking. In recent months, the shadow chancellor has expanded the size and scope of his press operation. He has appeared on the Andrew Marr Show to concede that the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s criticisms of the party’s anti-Semitism problem should be taken seriously. He conducted a big, weighty interview in this magazine. He has even done a Mumsnet Q&A.

The last of these is particularly interesting, because despite the patronising, sexist way in which the parenting forum is generally covered in the press, its denizens are some of the most savage questioners any politician will face. (Jeremy Corbyn was brutally criticised last year when his webchat started late and he only answered what one user called “arselick” comments.)

McDonnell fared better, coming up with a conciliatory non-answer on the balance between transgender rights and those of women born female, one of Mumsnet’s great obsessions. He also set out new and distinct positions on two thorny internal arguments that will dominate the party’s conference in Liverpool. He endorsed the current system for reselecting Labour MPs (contrary to the wishes of many activists and the outspoken Corbynite MP Chris Williamson). On Brexit, he said the party will apply its “six tests” to any deal, and vote against if it fails them; then it will seek an early general election; then it would consider a “People’s Vote”, also known as another referendum. These statements went considerably further than any offered by his leader and long-time friend Jeremy Corbyn.

If, say, Yvette Cooper had done all this, the words “leadership challenge” would hang heavy in the air. (“Every year media run the same laughable story of a McDonnell coup against Jeremy,” the shadow chancellor tweeted on 15 September. “Jeremy & I for 40 years have been as one and always will be.”) And if any other shadow cabinet member had been this outspoken, the result would have been a chiding email from Amy Jackson, Corbyn’s political secretary, to their special advisers reminding them to clear interviews and policy interventions in advance. (Repeat offenders might also have expected a passive-aggressive reminder of the protocol for clearing interviews from Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s policy chief, via the WhatsApp channel the leader’s office uses to communicate with staffers.)

McDonnell is unlikely to face any pushback, however. The repeated whispers about his leadership ambitions stem not from his words or actions, but from the Corbynite hegemony at the top of the party. Put simply: when the fractious parliamentary party are silent – as they currently are, with many prominent Corbynsceptics even skipping conference in Liverpool – then even minor differences of emphasis between power-brokers are magnified. Why, in New Labour’s pomp, was Blair vs Brown the only story in town? Because no one cared what Iain Duncan Smith thought.

Although the last few weeks have not seen the emergence of a McDonnell leadership bid, they have been revealing in another way. It has become clear that the “Corbyn project” – dragging Labour’s centre of gravity to the left – could continue without Corbyn as leader. But it is harder to imagine it succeeding without McDonnell. He is the inner circle’s most reliable and loyal media performer, occupying the slot that used to be Caroline Flint’s under Ed Miliband and Tessa Jowell’s under Tony Blair. Corbyn’s own dislike of media appearances (and indeed of the press) gives his old friend ample opportunity to dominate the airwaves.

Added to this, McDonnell is at the centre of the party’s economic policymaking. (Corbyn defers to McDonnell on the issue, just as he does to Diane Abbott on other domestic matters.) If McDonnell were to be unable to continue as shadow chancellor, there is no obvious successor. He has nurtured a protégé, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who still has the neighbouring office in parliament from her time as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, but she is regarded by the rest of the party as untested.

It is also an open question whether McDonnell could take the leadership, even if he wanted to (and Corbyn wanted to relinquish it). The leaders of the big trade unions haven’t forgotten his tendency, earlier in his career, to put an arm around the most left-wing challenger to them in internal elections. That makes it hard to see how they would ever accept, let alone facilitate, a handover from Corbyn to McDonnell.

Then there is the Woman Problem: the Conservatives have had two female leaders, but Labour, the “party of equality”, has not yet had one. It is likely that party members will be given an all-female field to choose from next time. Indeed, McDonnell called for Corbyn’s eventual successor to be a woman in his Mumsnet Q&A.

So, again, what is John McDonnell up to? The answer is, simply, party management. His Mumsnet answers on 18 September reveal that he is trying to prevent a split in the parliamentary party by making reassuring noises on selection; after all, Corbynsceptic MPs who face deselection might decide to jump before they are pushed. He is also trying to prevent another split, between the Eurosceptic leadership and the Europhile members. By holding out the possibility of backing a so-called People’s Vote, he must hope that the leadership can emerge from party conference with its Brexit ambiguity intact but its largely pro-Remain grass roots and voters reassured.

McDonnell is not undermining his old ally and friend. Rather, he is ensuring that the revolution that started with Corbyn’s victory in 2015 does not wither once he leaves the stage.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war