"There's a mood of 'anyone but Tom'. And people think: 'Hey, I'm anyone!'." Photo: Getty Images
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What's going on in the Labour deputy leadership race?

The parliamentary Labour party is desperate for someone to stop Tom Watson. That's one reason why it's unlikely to happen.

Note: on 12 September 2015, Tom Watson was elected deputy leader of the Labour party.

John Healey has pulled out of Labour’s deputy leadership race, urging his supporters to help those candidates who have yet to secure the 35 nominations they need to get on the ballot.

Although the Wentworth & Deane MP has a low profile outside Westminster, he is well-liked throughout the party and was widely expected to secure the backing of 35 MPs that he needed to get on the ballot. What’s going on?

It all comes down to the question that explains the race for the Labour party leadership: “will someone please stop Tom Watson?”

Although Watson is well-liked by members – “They see him as Mother Teresa,” sighs one MP – the parliamentary Labour party is less sold. “I’ve never been more opposed to any candidate in my life,” says one MP. Another senior MP says they will “chuck the whole thing in” if Watson becomes deputy leader. “He’s a bully and a liability,” says a third.

Although others disagree – “the movement always comes first for Tom,” says one left-wing MP – the antipathy extends into the party’s headquarters. One senior official says glumly: “Tom is going to come straight back in here and start running the show again, bullying the staff and throwing his weight around.” “He always wants to seize more power, and he can’t resist abusing his power,” says another.

But that opposition to Watson may only help him in the leadership contest. "The problem with the fact that the mood in the PLP is 'Anyone but Tom'," one MP observes, "is that a lot of people around here think 'Hey, I'm anyone!" That's why no fewer than four other candidates are desperately scrabbling for the nominations they need to make it on the ballot paper. (A fifth, Caroline Flint, has already secured the 35 nominations she needs to get on the ballot.)

"These candidates are all in the last chance saloon," one insider says, "Angela: elected in 1992. Ben: elected 1997. Stella: doesn't play well with others.”  Rushanara Ali, the MP for Bow & Bethnal Green, is said to fear that she is falling behind her peers having stood down from the frontbench in 2014 over the bombing of Isil in Iraq.

Healey was expected to do well, partly because he is respected across the party, and also because, in the words of one MP, there are plenty of people “from the same bit of the party as Tom who don’t want Tom”. But that doesn’t seem to have been enough for him to get 35 names. “He wasn’t organised,” says one MP bluntly. “He stepped down because he couldn’t get 35 MPs,” says another. The question is, who benefits now he’s gone?

Some of Healey’s supporters will doubtless swallow their reservations and back Watson. Others may decide they are willing to stomach their objections to Creasy as the non-Blairite candidate best placed to stop him personally. But the biggest beneficiary will probably be the most inoffensive candidate left standing, Angela Eagle, or the one remaining minority in the race, Rushanara Ali.



Now listen to Stephen discussing the Labour leadership race on the NS podcast:


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

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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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