How Tom Watson reinvented himself to become the new challenger to Corbyn

21 July 2019

1:47 AM

21 July 2019

1:47 AM

Tom Watson has had more reinventions than Kylie Minogue has had mid-performance outfit changes. His performances over the years have ranged from baronial backroom fixer loathed by Blairites to scourge of Fleet Street when he took on Rupert Murdoch. There was a brief counter-culture period when he went around wearing a beret, a foray into hunting down alleged paedophiles, and a mysterious vanishing act when he realised that Jeremy Corbyn’s fans were out to get him.

In the magazine this week, I look at where Watson’s latest incarnation is taking him: he’s the key figure in the latest attempt to save the Labour Party from Jeremy Corbyn and his hard left allies. As I say in that piece, Watson these days is a kindly man who many MPs – to their own great surprise – look to for help and support. Speaking to those colleagues, I’ve been struck by how all of them can’t quite believe where they’ve ended up.

Some have worked with Watson for years, but still describe him as ‘very enigmatic’. You’re more likely to understand the man if you’re the sort of politico who enjoys backroom deals, working with trade unions and power brokers, rather than getting embroiled in policy debates and parliamentary nerdery. It’s from that first world that Watson hails: he was chair of the National Organisation of Labour Students, and went on to be National Political Officer of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, before joining parliament in 2001. ‘He was part of the Old Right wing machinery of the engineers’ union,’ says one longstanding colleague. ‘He was a backroom fixer and it was all about baronial politics. He played that same role for Gordon Brown, fixing things and looking to the power brokers. If you weren’t in that part of politics, he barely knew you.’

Another colleague from the Brown era members him as ‘an absolute charmer’ who could bring people together yet also pump vast amounts of energy into ‘being vindictive and wildly sectarian’. Many MPs found it hard to trust Watson after he became embroiled in the plot to oust Tony Blair in 2006. As a junior minister, he signed a letter calling for Blair to resign, and then stepped down himself, releasing a further statement telling Blair to go. His role became still more controversial when it was revealed that Watson had visited Gordon Brown at his home in Fife just before the first letter was published. In a bizarre justification for the visit, Watson insisted that the pair were not plotting but were instead watching Postman Pat with their children.

After the Postman Pat plot, many Blairites found it hard to trust Watson again. He tried a few costume changes – including a raspberry beret – before settling on becoming a David fighting the Goliath press barons. He earned the respect of his colleagues in standing up to Fleet Street: many Labour MPs had long felt that their party had been regularly done over by the newspapers in a way that the Tories had managed to avoid, and Watson became synonymous with the fightback against this. They still describe him as ‘immensely brave’ for this particular phase. One says: ‘With Murdoch, he threw his then not inconsiderable body weight into the path of the train. That made him suddenly very popular with the Labour Party. It was brave because had he fallen short, Murdoch would have hounded him out of office.’ When each new announcement or select committee report emerged in the unfolding phone hacking scandal, Watson could be seen, almost trembling with excitement, before delivering a speech he had clearly dreamt of giving for a very long time. He spoke of a ‘quiet cabal that runs the country’, and spent much time on social media fighting journalists.

He then tried to segue into an investigation into the other possible antics of that ‘quiet cabal’, repeatedly raising allegations of child abuse in the House of Commons. This paedo-hunting phase isn’t one we hear so much about these days, partly because one of the figures he worked with, Carl Beech, is currently on trial for perverting the course of justice and fraud.

All this work built him a profile that the Labour membership liked, which was how Watson came to win the deputy leadership in 2015 with 50.7 per cent of the vote. At first, he seemed very much part of the cabal around Jeremy Corbyn, defending the new leader in public and sweeping along with him at events and meetings. But gradually parliamentary disquiet grew louder and louder, and Watson realised that there was a plot to remove Corbyn in 2016.

A group of ‘moderate’ MPs had long been meeting and running a WhatsApp group, called Birthday Club, to discuss how to topple the Labour leader, and after the EU referendum result, their resolve hardened. They organised a wave of shadow ministerial resignations. Watson, at this stage not part of the plotting, saw what was happening, and tried to get involved. ‘When something is happening and he doesn’t have control, he pulls his motorcycle alongside and tried to claim an affinity of sorts,’ says one of the plotters. ‘The mass resignations happened without Tom being part of it. He resented that.’

As I say in the magazine piece, Watson’s intervention at this stage meant that Owen Smith, rather than Angela Eagle, ended up standing against Corbyn in the ensuing leadership contest. Corbyn won with a bigger majority, which meant the plotters, now including Watson, had to go quiet for a bit. Then along came the snap election, in which Labour lost surprisingly well. After that, Watson went to ground.

His vanishing act had two effects. The first was to create a power vacuum in the section of the party still vehemently opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It was filled by Chris Leslie and a group of other MPs who were starting to plan their exit from the party. Leslie is similarly bewitched by backroom organisation of parties – an obsession which caused his colleagues in Change UK some grief, before they split – and was able to take over the work Watson had been doing. Then Luton MP Gavin Shuker, very much not a baronial type, started inviting colleagues to consider seriously leaving.

All those involved in that schism are adamant that Watson wasn’t ready for their departure in February 2019. But his reaction showed that he was desperate to regain control. He set to work contacting wavering MPs, or sending his lieutenants to work on them, persuading them that ‘stay and fight’ was a better option than leaving.

Around this time, Watson was also confronted with the second effect of his lengthy post-election silence. Having been absent from many of the National Executive Committee and National Policy Forum battles of the previous year, he had become detached from the suffering of his Jewish colleagues. One of them gave him a furious dressing down, complaining that he was expecting them go out and fight while he stayed in hiding. He told friends that the Twitter abuse he was starting to get gave him an insight into how much colleagues like Luciana Berger (who left the party in February) and Ruth Smeeth were having to endure. This galvanised him to start fighting in a more concerted and public manner.

This has earned him the gratitude of MPs stuck in stand-offs with Corbyn’s team over anti-Semitism. Margaret Hodge, who had been identified as someone at risk of leaving the party, has since become convinced that Watson is going to save Labour.

All his skills learned from decades of backroom power play and front room fights are still there, but Watson has in the past year lost more than seven stone and sent his type 2 diabetes into remission. With the weight, he seems to have lost much of the anger that drove him either to engage in vicious battles with factions such as Progress, or to get embroiled in conspiracy theories around the press, gaming, or child abuse. Now, he is, in the words of various MPs, ‘our great white hope’ and ‘a shoulder to cry on’. He seems to have gained a better perspective on life, and a cultural hinterland as well. He happily stops to gossip about bikes with anyone he spots wandering about the estate with cycling paraphernalia, and was looking to join the local parkrun while he was at Glastonbury this year. He seems to have realised that there is more to life than just politics, even while he is engaged in what could turn out to be his most important political fight.

Some of his colleagues have recently decided that there is even more to their lives than a political career: this week Gloria de Piero, largely considered a loyal Watson lieutenant, announced she would not be standing again for Labour at the next election. Even those who say that staying and fighting is in their DNA do, after a while, confess that they’re still not feeling particularly cheerful about the future of the party. Their only real hope at the moment does seem to be Watson. But the battle he has ended up in now, to change the leader of the party, is so high-stakes that if he loses it, Watson is going to need more than just a costume change to escape the wrath of the Corbynites.

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