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

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.