John McDonnell tells civil servants to prepare for Labour in power

John McDonnell

Labour is to demand that the civil service prepares for the party entering government and for a second referendum, John McDonnell has said.

The shadow chancellor said that Jeremy Corbyn would request formal talks about plans for a Labour government when he meets Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, to discuss leaked claims about his health.

Sir Mark, the head of the civil service, offered to meet Mr Corbyn, 70, after Labour reacted with fury to The Times report that some senior civil servants fear he is not up to the job “physically or mentally” and has become “too frail and is losing his memory”. Labour has demanded an independent inquiry.

Mr McDonnell said he had asked Mr Corbyn also to raise the issue of planning for a Labour government at the meeting, because he believes a snap general election is likely this year and wants to be allowed to instruct Whitehall of his plans for the Treasury.

Jeremy Corbyn

He told reporters yesterday: “I have asked Jeremy, as he’s meeting Sedwill about this issue, about the inquiry, to raise at that meeting that we now should have access to the civil servants. Because of the likelihood of a change in prime minister happening and the likelihood therefore of a general election in the autumn, and I think that’s just the pragmatic and practical thing to do.”

After criticising David Cameron for not telling the civil service to prepare for a Leave vote in 2016, Mr McDonnell said: “At the moment we’re consulting on attitudes to a second referendum but Jeremy made it clear it should go back to the people in a referendum. And just as you’d expect the civil service to prepare for an incoming government, we’d expect them to prepare for all options — so that would have to be an option for them.”

This year The Times revealed that Mr McDonnell had written to Sir Tom Scholar, the Treasury’s permanent secretary, asking for a meeting with him and his team to discuss Labour’s first budget. But Sir Mark intervened and formally refused the request, citing the “well-established and longstanding convention” that civil service contact with the main opposition party is confined to “pre-election periods”.

Mr McDonnell has entered a fresh row about Labour’s handling of allegations of antisemitism. Addressing Philip Hammond, at what was probably the chancellor’s final appearance at the dispatch box for Treasury questions, Mr McDonnell said that he wanted to “thank him for the civility in which he’s always maintained our relationship” and offered him the parting gift of a red book in the form of “a guide to London’s rebel walks”.

This “little red book” recalled the time when Mr McDonnell gave George Osborne, Mr Hammond’s predecessor, a copy of Chairman Mao’s quotations, commonly called the Little Red Book.

The author of rebel walks, David Rosenberg, who is Jewish, has accused Labour MPs of using “very largely concocted allegations of antisemitism” to “undermine the leadership”. He has said that claims of the party having a “problem” with antisemitism are “specious and unsubstantiated”.

He wrote on Twitter: “Never dreamt that my book would feature in a parliamentary exchange! Thanks John McDonnell for the publicity.” A source close to Mr McDonnell told talkRADIO that he “totally disagrees” with Mr Rosenberg’s views on the issue.