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Tom Watson: an alliance between Momentum and Unite could 'destroy' Labour

Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson has accused Momentum's Jon Lansman of attempting to seize control of the party.

Momentum chief Jon Lansman and Unite’s Len McCluskey are plotting to seize control of Labour and “destroy” the party as an electoral force, deputy leader Tom Watson has claimed.

Watson’s comments – made in an interview on the Today programme and Twitter spat with Lansman – follow the Observer’s revelation of an apparent plan for Unite to affiliate to “and fully participate in” Momentum if McCluskey is re-elected as the union’s general secretary in April. 

A secret recording leaked to the paper also showed Lansman urging Momentum members to work to secure changes to Labour rules – specifically the so-called "McDonnell amendment" reducing the threshold of parliamentary support required for a leadership candidate to stand from 15 to 5 per cent – to secure a left-wing successor to Jeremy Corbyn.

A spokesperson for the Corbynite campaign group claimed Lansman’s comments were merely “aspirational”, while Unite have denied they have any formal plans to affiliate to Momentum.

Tom Watson – who hails from the party’s old right – has repeatedly warned of the danger posed to Labour by hard-left entryism. But his latest comments mark his first explicit attack on Momentum. He told Today he had a duty to speak out against the hard left’s “secret plan” to seize control of the party, adding that the alleged collusion between McCluskey and Lansman had the “tacit approval” of the Labour leadership. He said: "Enough is enough, this has got to stop... I'm afraid there are some people who do not have our electoral interests at heart".

Watson's remarks came after he and fellow Labour MP Jess Phillips rowed publicly with Lansman over the alleged plot on Twitter. He told Lansman: “You’ve revealed your plan. If you succeed you will destroy the Labour Party as an electoral force. So you have to be stopped.”

As for Momentum, representatives and allies of the group have sought to characterise Watson’s intervention as an attempt to influence the outcome of the impending Unite general secretary election.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and a key ally of Jeremy Corbyn, told the BBC: "This is not civil war...What [Watson] is trying to do is influence the election of the general secretary of Unite and he has dragged the Labour Party into this, completely unnecessarily."

Ballots will be sent to the super-union’s 1.4 million members next week, and McCluskey faces a concerted challenge from its West Midlands organiser Gerard Coyne – a long-time ally of West Bromwich East MP Watson – a perceived centrist who has criticised his rival’s fondness for playing “puppet master” to the Labour leadership.

In a statement released after Watson’s appearance on Today, Unite’s acting general secretary Gail Cartmail said Watson and other Labour MPs were “engaging in an unprecedented pattern of interference” in the election, while Momentum NEC member Christine Shawcroft accused him of mounting “a concerted attempt to interfere in the internal election in Unite...which is really shocking”.

McDonnell added the controversy was “all about Tom and the internal battle that he is trying to wage within Unite”.  

In a joint statement released after this morning's meeting of the shadow cabinet, Watson and Corbyn urged the party to remain united and stressed the Labour leadership "represents the whole party and not any one strand within it". In a coded rebuke to Lansman, they added: "No one speaks for the leadership except the leadership themselves and their spokespeople."

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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