John McDonnell: 'Any Other Prime Minister Would Have Gone By Now'

We caught up with the Shadow Chancellor earlier today, after the Supreme Court ruled that Boris Johnson had prorogued Parliament illegally.
September 24, 2019, 3:22pm
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John McDonnell in Brighton for Labour Conference.

Labour Party Conference started out feeling pretty chaotic.

What with the failed attempt to oust the Deputy Leader, and a senior aide in Corbyn's office resigning, it was already proving hard for Labour's well-crafted policy announcements to actually cut through. And then this morning's Supreme Court announcement happened. Suddenly, nobody was bothered about what Tom Watson might have to say about the "challenges of technological revolution", given that the Prime Minister had been found to have prorogued Parliament illegally, lying to the Queen in the process.

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Today, in a cab on the way to an event organised by The World Transformed, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is emphatic about the verdict.

"This was an absolutely clear cut decision from the court," he tells me from the front passenger seat. "Boris Johnson has abused his position as Prime Minister. It's attitudinal with him – he thinks he's above everything and above us all; therefore, to him, rules don't matter. What we need to do now is get back into Parliament, but I think the Conservative Party need to have a real think about the wisdom of ever electing him as Prime Minister."

Does that mean Labour are demanding a resignation? "Yes," McDonnell replies immediately. "He needs to go. Any other Prime Minister would have gone by now."

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As we sit in traffic, McDonnell lays out Labour's plan for the upcoming hours and days. The leadership will consult with other opposition parties immediately, but the thrust of their plan is clear: prevent a no deal Brexit. "We are going to hold the government to account and make sure they abide by the law we've already passed: that Johnson prevents a no deal and seeks an extension from the European Union," says McDonnell.

He adds that he hopes opposition parties can "expose the reality of what no deal means, as spelled out in Yellowhammer and beyond". That should result in an extension, he says, and possibly an urgent general election.

While this ruling isn't exactly ideal for the Prime Minister, it's not hard to guess one way the situation might play out. Johnson and his chief strategist Dominic Cummings have continually tried to paint themselves as anti-establishment figures. As preposterous as that is, some people believe it. So are we just one hysterical Mail front-page away from those same people backing him nonetheless?

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"We have to be clear: the ongoing feature of Johnson's character is this sense of entitlement – born to rule; the rules don't apply to him or his class – and therefore he can not only walk over Parliament, but ignore the law itself," says McDonnell. "I think that's incredibly dangerous, and we need to understand how dangerous that is, the forces he can unleash in that way. We're seeing some element of that already: violent demonstrations, attacking the cars that Jeremy and I travel in, swastikas all over the children's nursery at the top of my road."

Far from being an anti-establishment figure, McDonnell reckons Johnson is currently demonstrating that the establishment thinks it can do what it wants, no matter the rules. "The idea that it's the people v Parliament is nonsense," he says. "People fought for centuries and gave their lives to secure parliamentary representation for working people. This is a battle for democracy."

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While the Tory Party has, once again, descended into chaos, it was only yesterday that many were focusing on Labour's internal strife over Brexit. Rather than opting to explicitly back Remain, as some were hoping, the conference passed policy to keep the party neutral until a possible Labour-led renegotiation with Europe takes place.

"Let me lay it out step-by-step," says McDonnell when I ask him to clear up the position. "One: the people will decide; we'll have another referendum. Two: they'll have options in front of them, including a Remain against a sensible Leave option. And then three: at the end, whatever the decision is will be implemented by a Labour government."

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But, I ask, can he see why people are frustrated that Labour won't just come out and state clearly that they want to Remain, just as he has?

"They have the opportunity to campaign for Remain now, and they'll have the option to do that in a referendum as well," he replies. "I'll do both. But we have to recognise there are people in the party and the country who want another option. We'll bring forward that option and then judge whether it stands up against Remain. Personally, I can't see any alternative being as successful as continued membership of the EU, although that must come with reforms."

McDonnell's speech yesterday was full of bold policy pledges: reducing the working week to 32 hours, personal care free at the point of delivery, hundreds of billions of pounds invested in transforming our economy with a Green New Deal, into one that's sustainable. Is he pissed off that nobody is talking about all the stuff he's worked so hard to produce?

"It is infuriating, but it's the reality of what was going to happen," he says, smiling. "To be honest, I was amazed we got the coverage that we did around the free personal social care and reducing the working week."

"So everyone knows, though, what we've done is identified climate change as our number one priority when we get into government,” he continues. "Getting a climate change emergency declared in Parliament was critical, but we've now got to demonstrate what that means."

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McDonnell talks in detail about mobilising investment and transforming energy supplies; researching technology to help tackle climate change while adapting, too. It's the first time I've heard any would-be government in waiting outline a set of such precise and necessarily radical plans to take on the impending emergency we face (watch the full speech here).

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McDonnell speaking at an event organised by The World Transformed.

A standout moment from his stint at the podium was McDonnell's acknowledgement of Britain's colonial past. New technology, he said, would be shared with states in the global south: a form of reparations to those who suffered most during the British Empire.

"It's the responsibility of the UK as the country which had the first industrial revolution… we started climate change off," he explains. "But also because of its colonial activities. We have a special responsibility towards the global south, and yes that does mean reparations. That means the development of technology and sharing it, and offering resources to help those technologies be applied."

It's not just about taking on climate change, McDonnell says, but also about "the role we want to play in the world".

We pull up outside the venue for McDonnell's next speaking engagement. We're a little late, but as I follow him inside – Ed Miliband already addressing the packed-out audience – the place erupts into applause. "Sorry I'm late," says McDonnell, taking a seat in the corner. "I was delayed because I was contemplating a citizen's arrest of Boris Johnson."

@MikeSegalov / @bekkylonsdalephoto