McDonnell warns UK faces decade of disappointment under Tories

Richard Partington and Larry Elliott
Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/AFP via Getty Images

John McDonnell has warned that Britain risks a decade of disappointment under the Conservatives as Boris Johnson “steals” Labour policies without sufficiently ramping up spending to turn the page on austerity.

In his first pre-budget interview, the shadow chancellor said he thought Labour could win the next election in 2025. But, he warned that if the party failed to win, the nation would face a “decade of disappointment” not the 10 years of economic revival promised by Johnson.

Speaking as Rishi Sunak, the new chancellor, prepares what is expected to be an expansionary Tory budget, McDonnell said he thought Johnson’s government would make bold promises on transport projects and major public works without providing sufficient funds for day-to-day priorities.

“I don’t think they understand the way people live their lives. I don’t think they’re connected at all,” McDonnell said, adding that education and police funding, as well as the national living wage, weren’t rising fast enough.

“I think they’re making a mistake [believing] that big infrastructure will suddenly transform people’s lives and it doesn’t. It’ll take years to come through. 10, 15, 20 years. I think that people will feel that only when they get income in their pockets will they see that actually austerity has really ended.”

Following Sajid Javid’s surprise resignation as chancellor, the Treasury has refused to confirm whether Sunak will deliver the budget as planned on 11 March. However, the government must put forward a finance bill – which typically comes alongside the budget – in order to continue collecting taxes in the next financial year.

McDonnell said Sunak will “do as he is told” by Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, but that any additional funding measures thrown into the budget would do “nothing to impact in any meaningful way on the way most people in our country live their lives”.

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The shadow chancellor said Johnson’s government was planning to “steal most of our clothes” by ramping up spending on transport infrastructure. But he warned the scale of the government’s ambition would fall far short of what is needed to improve the lives of working families across the country. “I just think it lacks ambition. People will get that.”

He said the party needed to accept the Brexit debate was over for at least a generation. “By the time we get to the next election, four and a half years from now, it won’t be the issue that it was,” he said. “I think the most salient issue will be the failure of the Johnson government and that it’s all huff and puff and promise and no delivery. And it hasn’t changed people’s lives in the ways they were promised. It will be that combination of disappointment and betrayal by Johnson.”

His comments come as Labour holds a leadership contest that will culminate in April. Ahead of returning to the backbenches, McDonnell said he would keep up the attack on the Tories at the budget to help lay strong foundations for the incoming leader. He has backed Rebecca Long-Bailey to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader, as well as Richard Burgon for deputy.

McDonnell admitted the party’s leadership had failed to communicate how a Corbyn-led government would improve people’s lives. “We never had a narrative that bound them all together or demonstrated a real plan that people thought could be implemented,” he said. “The individual elements were not rejected. But the overall narrative wasn’t accepted, it wasn’t sufficient to convince people.”

McDonnell also warned Labour needed to move on from the Brexit debate after being “caught in a vice” during the election campaign between backing leave and remain, a position that observers said torpedoed its electoral chances.

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