What John McDonnell's GQ interview really tells us

The shadow chancellor's admission that Jeremy Corbyn would resign if he lost an election is less noteworthy than what he says should happen afterwards.

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What is John McDonnell up to? The shadow chancellor has raised eyebrows in Westminster and generated headlines everywhere after telling a GQ interviewer – one Alastair Campbell that he and Jeremy Corbyn would have to resign in the event that Labour lost the next general election. 

AC: OK. Another hypothetical. If he were to lose another election, is it possible for him to stay on? 

JM: I can't see... I think it is the same for my own personal position, I can't see so. What we'd do is as the tradition, which is have an election for a new leader.

It’s a revealing exchange, though not for the reason you might think. Sources close to McDonnell insist that his answer is neither here nor there: earlier in the interview, he insists Labour will win a majority, and by implication  that the situation Campbell describes won’t arise.

Yet many Labour MPs are convinced it will. Every shadow cabinet minister is alive to the possibility of an election defeat and its likely internal consequences as, for that matter, are Corbyn’s allies.

That McDonnell says Corbyn would have to resign in the event of an election defeat is not the interesting bit of his answer. As Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh revealed in their study of the 2017 election, Corbyn’s inner team accepted that he would have to resign if he straightforwardly "lost" the election that is to say, he polled less than Ed Miliband did in 2015 and lost seats. One would expect that rule to hold fast again.

What’s more revealing is McDonnell’s vision of the transition. Here it is again: “What we’d do is as the tradition, which is have an election for a new leader.” If Corbyn were to resign in the circumstances McDonnell alludes to here, the job and the right to nominate three members of Labour’s ruling national executive committee would pass in the interim to his deputy, Tom Watson. As far as future-proofing the left’s internal supremacy is concerned, that is not a good outcome. That explains the botched move to abolish the job of deputy leader altogether on the eve of Labour conference.

That, McDonnell acknowledged to Campbell, was a “fiasco”. But in acknowledging what even Corbyn loyalists believe will have to happen in the wake of an election defeat, he is the first person to articulate the logic behind it publicly that an orderly transition is coming, and that the left needs to make sure it can come out on top. It is the clearest indication yet that jostling at the very top of Labour is about one thing only: the succession.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.