Whenever John McDonnell addresses the Commons, weird things happen in Westminster. The entire parliamentary estate is gripped by unexplained phenomena.
Dark nimbus clouds suddenly form over Big Ben. Birds stop tweeting. Flowers along New Palace Yard begin to wilt. Over on Parliament Square, excitable puppies abruptly cease their wagging and curl into defensive balls.
It is as though the Shadow Chancellor, like some snaggle-toothed medieval sorcerer, can render the Commons incapacitated with the sheer anguish of his misery-laden oratory.
We saw McDonnell’s eerie powers in action yesterday when he delivered the Opposition day debate on tax evasion and avoidance (the former is illegal, the latter merely frowned upon).
What a gloom-fest it was. Like being made to endure an Ingmar Bergman film on a hangover.
It is as though the Shadow Chancellor, like some snaggle-toothed medieval sorcerer, can render the Commons incapacitated with the sheer anguish of his misery-laden oratory
The Government, McDonnell said, were ‘incapable of caring for our people, housing our people, feeding them or providing the work that will lift them and their families out of poverty’. They had used the global financial crisis ‘as a fake alibi for their austerity’ which had left ‘virtually every area of our public services in crisis’.
He said all this like a vicar delivering a eulogy he hoped he’d never have to give. His voice, barely rising above a whisper, was weary and resigned. Occasionally, he would squeeze the despatch box and stare at the ceiling in despair. Other times he would put his hands behind his back and gently kick the floor as though shaking dust from his shoe.
By contrast, McDonnell’s deputy Lyn Brown (West Ham), sat to his right, was a bundle of furious animation, shrieking and snarling.
Each time McDonnell lobbed a statistic across the chamber, she chirped an aggressive ‘Yep!’ She bridled, in particular, at McDonnell’s reference to recently appointed Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who had chosen not to attend the debate. ‘Where is ‘e, eh?’ Brown demanded. Give the guy a break. He’s been given barely three weeks to prepare a Budget. Needs must and all that.
On McDonnell plodded. He pointed out that under George Osborne (‘one of the many Chancellors I have dealt with over the years’) the Tories promised a boom in manufacturing. ‘A march of the makers’ Osborne had called it. McDonnell said it had been more like a ‘march of the takers’. ‘Exackkkly!’ cried Brown.