Defending Peter Watt over those Gordon Brown revelations

Why should the public only be told of the PM's regime after the election?

The backlash against Peter Watt for writing his memoirs was predictable, and he was braced for it.

However, I challenge anyone to read his full story, which I ghostwrote, and not understand and respect his decision to tell it.

Actually, the idea for the book was mine, not his, though he didn't take much persuasion. And let's get one thing straight: neither of us did it for the money. Indeed, for differing reasons, both of us were prepared to write the book for nothing. Until it was finished, we didn't even know if we would cover our costs.

The project began after I met Peter to interview him for a newspaper article in May last year. It was the day after the Crown Prosecution Service announced that he would not face charges, and after 18 months of forced silence, he was finally free to speak.

He poured out his heart about the way he had been treated by the Labour leadership, and the hugely damaging price he had paid for what he felt was a collective mistake.

He seemed more hurt than angry or embittered and was clearly desperate to set the record straight. He had so much to say that, there and then, I floated the idea of working on a book together.

Neither of us knew quite what we were getting into but, every time we met, he told me things I found funny, interesting or extraordinary -- sometimes all three. He was frank and self-deprecating, and the more we talked, the more confident I became that his story would interest others as much as it interested me.

I am not a big fan of heavy political books, and it was the sense that he had a compelling human-interest story as well as serious information that appealed to me. He spoke very movingly about the death of his father, his marriage and his role as a foster parent, and was very open about his feelings.

Timing was obviously a big issue. Peter was already sticking his neck out by revealing sensitive information and knew that publishing before the election would cause further anger. But there seemed little point in bringing out the book after everyone had lost interest. In any case, those who argue that he should have waited until after the election are in effect saying the public should be told about Gordon Brown's regime only after it is too late for them to do anything about it.

This seems a cowardly and dishonest way to treat the electorate.

It is easy for critics to carp about Peter's disloyalty, but I wonder how many of them would feel an iota of loyalty in his shoes? Make no mistake: this man almost lost everything, arguably through little fault of his own.

Expecting him to keep quiet about it, to spare the blushes of those who hung him out to dry, is a demand too far.

Isabel Oakeshott is deputy political editor of the Sunday Times

 

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.