Tom Watson poses for pictures outside the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London, on November 29, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson: shadow cabinet cowards should back Miliband or step down

Labour MP criticises those who "use the cover of anonymity to make attacks on a leader". 

For tomorrow's summer double issue of the New Statesman, I've interviewed Tom Watson, the man who, as one Labour MP puts it to me, has "been everywhere". Whether campaigning for (and securing) a major inquiry into child abuse allegations, leading the revolt against new "“emergency"” surveillance powers, or organising a boycott of the Sun'’s free World Cup edition, Watson is proof that MPs can wield more influence from the backbench than they can from the frontbench. 

Here are some highlights from the interview

"Cowardly" shadow cabinet ministers should back Miliband or step down

After recent off the record criticism of Ed Miliband by shadow cabinet ministers, Watson attacks the briefers as "cowardly", calling on them to resign if they are unwilling to support their leader. He says:

The frustrating thing is that there have been some shadow cabinet members who have briefed off the record and said some critical things about Ed. That’s the most cowardly thing in the world. If they feel very strongly about things, go to the back benches and speak out – that’s what I did. Don’t use the cover of anonymity to make attacks on a leader.

Alan Johnson should return to the shadow cabinet

Ahead of an expected Labour reshuffle, Watson joins John Prescott and his friend Len McCluskey in calling for Alan Johnson to return to the shadow cabinet. 

Alan Johnson is one of those unique MPs, he’s got huge reach and is very level-headed. I don’t agree with him politically on a lot of things, although over the years he’s begun to convince me of the case for proportional representation in a way that he would be as surprised of as I am, but people like Alan could be really effective as we go up to polling day.

But should Johnson agree to return, the challenge for Miliband will be finding room for him in an already crowded campaign team (the former cabinet minister does not want to taken on a portfolio). 

"I felt sorry" for Andy Coulson

On the wall of Watson's office is a framed copy of the final edition of the News of the World given to him as a present by McCluskey for "an outstanding contribution to trade unionism". It is his long campaign to bring the phone-hackers to justice for which he is now best known. When I ask him how he felt on the day Andy Coulson was jailed, his surprising response is that he "felt sorry" for him. 

On a personal level, I felt sorry for him. It’s over for him, you’ve got to take responsibility for your actions.

He adds that "the fundamental issue is still there", "which is that Rupert Murdoch owns too much of Britain’s media. If what we read in the papers is right, he wants more, and you can only stop that concentration of power with rules to limit media ownership."

On Louise Mensch: a "missed opportunity" for Cameron

It was as a member of the media select committee that Watson formed an unlikely friendship with Louise Mensch, the Conservative MP who later left parliament for the United States. "I liked her because she was a character," he says. "She obviously went off and became a columnist for Rupert Murdoch, which didn’t look great. But I admired her because she was comfortable in her own skin, she had her own opinions, which she wasn’t frightened to articulate, and she was tough. If you look down it, what a missed opportunity for Cameron, she felt so uncomfortable with the political system we’re in that she resigned mid-term with all that ability. There’s something going wrong with politics if people like Louise Mensch feel it’s not for them."

Labour could work with the Lib Dems - but Clegg must go

Watson argues that Miliband should try to form a government with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament, but warns that it would be "impossible" for him to do so were Clegg to remain Liberal Democrat leader.  

"It wouldn’t be unreasonable for Ed to try and form a government [with the] Lib Dems; I think it would be almost impossible for him to get political permission to do that if Nick Clegg was leading the party. It wouldn’t be right that Nick Clegg, who forged the coalition programme that had been rejected at the election, was sharing power for a second term with a different prime minister. But I would imagine that, though Nick Clegg would deny this now, he would know that."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.