Tom Watson accuses May of "a cover-up" over child abuse claims

Labour MP says inquiry into allegations involving a senior Conservative politician is "the next stage of a cover-up".

After criticising the BBC for failing to respond adequately to allegations of child abuse by Jimmy Savile, the government is determined not to be seen to make the same mistake in the case of the alleged north Wales paedophile ring.

In a Commons statement earlier today, Theresa May announced the details of two inquiries into allegations of sexual abuse involving a former senior Conservative politician. The Home Secretary told MPs that north Wales police chief Mark Polin had invited Keith Bristow, the director general of the National Crime Agency, to "assess the allegations recently received, to review the historic police investigations and investigate any fresh allegations". He will produce an initial report on the case by April 2013. In addition, May confirmed that the government would ask "a senior independent figure" to lead an investigation into the 1996-2000 Waterhouse Inquiry, which is accused of failing to consider all allegations of abuse. "Given the seriousness of the allegations, we will make sure that this work is completed urgently," she added.

Responding for Labour, Yvette Cooper warned that having more than one inquiry risked causing confusion and called for "a single, overarching review". But it was Tom Watson, who first aired the new allegations at PMQs last month, who made the most notable intervention when he accused May of instituting "the next stage of a cover-up". The Labour MP told the Commons:

The lesson of Hillsborough and hacking is that a narrow-down investigation is the basic building block of a cover-up. To limit this inquiry to north Wales and Savile would in my view be a dereliction of the Home Secretary's duty. It would guarantee that many sickening crimes will remain uninvestigated and some of the most despicable paedophiles will remain protected by the establishment that has shielded them for 30 years.

Whether you were raped or tortured as a child in Wales or in Whitehall you are entitled to be heard. The media may be transfixed by the spectre of a paedophile cabinet minster abusing children, but what actually matters is that thousands and thousands of children, whose lives have been ground into nothing, who prefer to kill themselves than carry on, who have nowhere to turn, to whom nobody listens, whom nobody helps. Does she sincerely want to start making amends or can she live with being what she’s just announced – the next stage of a cover-up.

May was careful to warn MPs that using parliamentary privilege to name the Thatcher-era Tory could jeopardise any future prosecution. For the record, the individual in question has denied all of the allegations. He told the Daily Telegraph:

Some guy said I was in the habit of taking young men from Wrexham in my Rolls-Royce.

But I have only been to Wrexham once and I didn’t visit the children’s home, I made a speech to the constituency. I was with an official at all times. I never had a Rolls Royce.

When the inquiry was taking place I hired a lawyer to watch it in case there was any mention of my name. The point is that it is totally without any grounds whatsoever.

Labour MP Tom Watson warned that "many sickening crimes will remain uninvestigated". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.