Labour will reverse the political situation in Britain within 12 months, says John McDonnell

Exclusive: In an interview with The Independent the Shadow Chancellor discusses Labour’s dismal position in the polls and Theresa May’s relationship with Donald Trump

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Labour will close the poll gap and reverse the political situation in Britain within 12 months as the Conservatives begin “ripping themselves apart” over Brexit, John McDonnell has insisted.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Independent the Shadow Chancellor, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allies in Westminster, claimed that once divisions over the invoking of Article 50 were out of the way the party would unite.

Speaking in his office in Westminster, the day after the Commons passed the Government’s Brexit Bill by 498 votes to 114 (47 Labour MPs rebelled), Mr McDonnell also suggested Theresa May demeaned herself by rushing towards President Donald Trump’s side in a “desperate” attempt to secure a trade deal in Washington last week.

Since Ms May’s ascent to Downing Street in the summer of 2016, Labour’s position in the polls has been dismal and rarely have the Tories been fewer than 10 points ahead of Labour. “It will take a while to turn,” Mr McDonnell added.

“For Jeremy’s period since Ed Miliband stood down – we’re talking about 18 months or so – half of which has been leadership elections. Understandably people see this as a divided party and it’s going to take a long time to restore that and that’s what we’re doing”.

Asked whether he agreed with a prediction from Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, that Labour will close the gap in the polls with the Tories in the next year, he replied: “I think over the next 12 months we’ll turn the political situation around and that’s what we’ll do.”

He added: “Now we get past Article 50, we’re then in our terrain in which we’re protecting people from a reckless Brexit the Tories are going to implement… the Tories will start ripping themselves apart of the next 12 months. On that basis I think you’ll see that Theresa May’s honeymoon comes to an end. A relationship with Donald Trump may not be the most stable basis upon which you seek to secure your popularity in this country either.

“Over the next 12 months we’ll be contesting in a way that narrows the gap between us and the Tories.” Asked what would happen if this scenario didn’t turn into a reality he replied: “Well, I think it will”.

His comments come after a torrid week for the Labour party as dozens of MPs defied a three-line whip – the strictest possible instruction – to vote against the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Three members of the party’s Shadow Cabinet – representing constituencies with significant proportions of Remain voters – resigned from their posts before the vote. And now the leadership is braced for a fresh rebellion this week, especially if the party fails to secure amendment’s to the Government’s EU Withdrawal bill in the Commons.

Asked about whether MPs would have to resign from the frontbench, Mr McDonnell said the party abides by the “parliamentary convention whereby if someone is in the Shadow Cabinet and votes against it they resign”.

“With other ranks within the PLP the chief whip will report after the Commons stages of the Bill itself and we’ll take into account what his recommendations are.” On the three whips, who voted against the whip, he added: “I’ll leave that for the chief whip”.

Explaining the painful situation Labour MPs find themselves in, he continued: “The atmosphere is one of understanding and mutual respect, we understand where people are coming from completely. It’s exactly as Keir [Starmer] has said time and time again, we’re now in a situation where we campaigned for Remain, we lost the referendum…two thirds of our members now represent seats where people voted Leave and there are others with constituencies where there is an extremely strong Remain vote.

“We’ve had to give direction under the whip system because we wanted people to be clear about Labour policy is – and it is to support the triggering of Article 50 and not to in anyway obstruct it.”

But Labour’s position also appears to have resulted in members abandoning the party. According to the New Statesman magazine more than 7,000 have deserted Labour in the last week over the party’s Article 50 stance.  “Members come and go,” said Mr McDonnell when asked for his reaction to this. “Members come and go. It’s renewals that are the big thing at the moment.”

He is scathing of the Prime Minister’s historic visit to Washington, where she appeared at a press conference with Mr Trump just hours before he signed an executive order indefinitely blocking Syrian refugees from entering the US. Immigration from Syria and six other predominantly Muslim countries, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, has also been suspended for at least 30-days. On Monday, when thousands of protestors marched on Whitehall to express their anger at the travel ban, Mr McDonnell was in the crowd.

“I think she’s [Ms May] made a catastrophic mistake,” he added. “Where her advisers and she thought naively that being the first person through the door to greet Donald Trump was some form of electoral advantage to her here, I think has proved completely counter-productive. I don't think people want to see a British Prime Minister demeaning themselves in that way. I understand why she did it: she was desperately trying to demonstrate some form of status for herself but also she’s desperate to find a trade deal.

He believes if the Prime Minister fails to “negotiate properly” US corporations will see the NHS as open for privatisation.  “Donald Trump is a negotiator. To have someone rushing to you, walking hand in hand desperate for a trade deal – it doesn’t display any strength in that negotiation from our point of view and I’m fearful of the sort of deal that they’ll do.

Later, he added: “People are anxious she [May] is going to sell off the NHS… I think she’ll negotiate a trade deal desperately and I think the President will walk all over us… I think he sees our welfare state as the opportunity for profit for US companies… it’s the same with higher education and other aspects.

“I think Donald Trump welcomes her and she’s so pleased to get the first invite but I think he sees it as a rich cherry to be picked in terms of our economy.”

In the interview Mr McDonnell, who has been the MP for Hayes and Harlington since 1997, also revealed the party has set up a taskforce to investigate universal basic income, which will present its findings before the next general election. The radical concept involves ditching means-tested benefits in favour of unconditional flat-rate payments to all citizens.

During the summer of 2016 he suggested he could “win the argument” on basic income within the Labour party but now he intends to publish a report on the idea with Guy Standing, one of his economic advisers and a founding member of Basic Income Earth Network – established in 1986 to encourage discussion on the topic around Europe.

His comments come before he appeared alongside his long-time comrade Mr Corbyn in Liverpool on Saturday to launch a series of regional economic conferences, aimed at addressing the regional investment imbalance in the economy. “It’s pretty stark what’s been happening over a period of years especially under this Government, is the lack of investment particularly in the North,” Mr McDonnell added. He’s anxious over what he describes as a potential “bankers’ Brexit” – a deal at the expense of the wider economy for a special settlement to be done with the City of London.

He also vowed to deliver a “Crossrail for the North” with a series of major upgrades to east-west transport links. A new “High Speed 3” rail link would transform the economy of northern England, creating 850,000 additional jobs by 2050. 

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