A bad week for John McDonnell and a warning for Alex Salmond…

“I suppose”, said John McDonnell in the House of Commons on Wednesday, “I should deal straightforwardly with the u-turn”. There was a small murmur of assent from behind Labour’s shadow chancellor – for there are a tiny few in the House of Commons who wish him well – and all around the far larger sound of MPs stocking up on schadenfraude for a man about to abase himself before them. The u-turn was “embarrassing”, said Mr McDonnell, and in case anyone was willing to insist otherwise, he repeated the word five times in total. Mrs Thatcher did three “no’s” from her side of the House; Mr McDonnell had five “embarrassings”. Numerical disadvantage notwithstanding, one feels that, in poker terms, Mrs Thatcher’s was the stronger hand.

Mr McDonnell ploughed on. It was no bad thing, he claimed, “for politicians to show a little humility”. This is one of those propositions that is put only to or by people who need desperately for it to be true. Just as you only say “looks don’t matter” to ugly children, so the Venn diagram of politicians contending that humility and contrition are no bad things in politics overlaps completely with that of those who have covered themselves in a layer stupidity and set light to it with the torch of incompetence.

The shadow chancellor was, of course, referring to his decision to march Labour MPs into the lobby against George Osborne’s “fiscal charter”, having said two weeks ago that the Party would support it. Mr McDonnell deployed the classic “when circumstances change I change my mind’” argument to justify his volte face, except that it wasn’t at all clear what circumstances had actually changed. He was more effective in detailing for the Commons how Mr Osborne had treated his previous charters and fiscal pledges with the same sort of cynical disdain that the Regency buck he is supposed to resemble would have treated a tavern wench. Yet activity on the Osborne cynical disdain front has not noticeably spiked in the last couple of weeks. The Chancellor has been no more or less shameless than normal in ignoring inconvenient truths about his fiscal record. His opposite number may have a point about the record, but it is not a point that does him any good in explaining away his own humiliating car crash.

Outside the Chamber, Mr McDonnell tried another tack. He had been, he said, trying to out Osborne Osborne. It is a good thing he hadn’t attempted this inside the chamber, since to have claimed that he was out Rt Hon Member for Tattoning the Rt Hon Member for Tatton would have meant that he could still in there now, with Diane Abbott fetching him sandwiches. By this time pretty much no one was listening to the shadow chancellor in any case. Most Labour MPs caught the new instructions, but a sizeable minority abstained in the vote, giving a large Commons majority for Mr Osborne’s contrived idea of legislative fiscal handcuffs (a idea so stupid, incidentally, that it was nicked from Gordon Brown).  Those abstaining in the vote included Tristram Hunt and Liz Kendall, emblems of the vanquished Blairites. Those briefing the press that the party leadership was incapable of finding Africa on a map of Africa was approaching epidemic proportions.

Throughout all this, Jeremy Corbyn has maintained a Zen-like calm. He has an odd style of leadership the Labour leader, that seems to include an almost total lack of regard for whether or not anyone is following. Important votes lie ahead for Labour on issues such as Syria and Trident and one gets the impression that, should his colleagues decide to cut corners and elect to nuke Damascus, Mr Corbyn would do very little except sit on the front bench and muse upon the peculiar ways in which the democratic cookie crumbles. Rarely could such a large mandate to lead have been given accompanied by so little appetite for using it. Meanwhile, his Party is struggling to find a way even to agree on how they should disagree.
It is little wonder that the Labour Party under Corbyn is so royally sneered at from the far north. The SNP, gathering to round off the conference season in Aberdeen (and in the process incurring the wrath of Mr Speaker, who is rather like a public school headmaster when boys come back late from skiing after Christmas in his disapproval of term-time absence), mocked a party “divided and in disarray”. This suits the Scottish Nationalists even more than its suits the Conservatives south of the border, for while Labour is supposedly the loyal opposition, that very phrase is an oxymoron to the SNP brain. Disagreement with the nationalist narrative is regarded as at best a regrettable eccentricity, and at worst an act of brtrayal comparable to the massacre at Glencoe. “Welcome to North Korea” said a Scottish journalist greeting a colleague from down south at the Aberdeen conference. The comparison is an unfair one, of course: after all, the two places have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the possession of nuclear weapons.

There are, however, parallel signs of a leadership cult. Kim Il Sturgeon addressed the conference not once but twice. She used her platforms to warn her party not to expect a headlong rush towards a second referendum, though Scots will certainly demand one should the UK as a whole opt to get out of the EU. Dressing her position up as a matter of high principle – the “no” vote in 2014 must be respected etc – Ms Kim’s caution also has the useful effect of differentiating her stance from that of Alex Salmond. The previous Great Leader, having failed with one referendum, now wants the Scots to try again as soon as possible. Otherwise, Scotland will go to the dogs, which is where the real Kim Jong Un’s uncle is rumoured to have gone after his nephew had him executed. Everyone’s favourite Scots Nats uncle, Mr Salmond has been warned.

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