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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". 

Labour MP criticises those who "use the cover of anonymity to make attacks on a leader".
Tom Watson poses for pictures outside the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London, on November 29, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

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."

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