Will Watson's departure prevent a new round of Labour bloodletting?

The chatter in the party has been that Watson runs around the country making sure 'his' people get chosen as candidates.

The resignation of Tom Watson from the shadow cabinet substantially changes the complexion of the row over internal Labour party processes and selection battles. Ostensibly, the arguments and allegations in recent weeks had been about the influence of Unite - specifically its explicit strategy of placing hand-picked candidates in line for winnable parliamentary seats. This all came to light because of an egregiously clumsy attempt to stitch-up the selection in Falkirk.
 
As details of that episode have been pored over and the Labour leadership has tried to get a grip, a recurring theme in discussions has been the friendship between Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and Watson (now ex) Labour party deputy chair and head of campaigns. It was hardly a secret or a surprise that trade unions had a profound role influencing constituency selections. Frankly, without union money it is quite hard to fight any kind of Labour campaign - internal or external. But something a number of MPs and shadow ministers have been complaining about in private is the very specific role that Watson has had in anointing potential parliamentary candidates. 
 
The chatter around the party - more specifically, but by no means exclusively the angst-ridden and disillusioned Blairish side of the party - has been that Watson runs around the country making sure 'his' people get chosen and consolidating an already formidable control over the part machine. This, as I noted in my column this week, is pretty much the same machine that agitated internally for Gordon Brown to replace Tony Blair in Downing Street and that helped enforce Brown's will once the coup had succeeded. By reputation - no doubt somewhat exaggerated -  it is an apparatus of whispers, smears, briefings and 'punishment beatings'. 
 
When Ed Miliband became leader he had a relatively small following in the parliamentary party and certainly nothing that could be called a machine. So he inherited the old Brown-era one. Miliband has stayed studiously aloof from the grindings and whirrings of internal party machination, but the grumbling about the old techniques being back in play was getting hard to ignore. I was told recently that representations had been made to the leader's office by MPs and shadow ministers to the effect that the culture of 'dark arts' was running out of control and that it was in danger of making Ed, with his preference for idealistic, moralising language, look like a hypocrite.
 
I suspect noises of this kind were getting louder as a result of the publicity around the Falkirk case. A potentially unkind spotlight was perhaps about to fall on the way Watson is alleged to have been carrying out his duties. His resignation pre-empts what could have been - and of course still could be - a round of old-fashioned red-on-red bloodletting.
 
Tom Watson speaks during the launch of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee report on phone-hacking on 1 May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”