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23 July 2014

Tom Watson interview: The lone hunter

The Labour MP on what he has learned by leaving the party's front bench.

By George Eaton

Enter Tom Watson’s office and one of the first things you notice is a colourful, wall-mounted, mocked-up picture of him as Mario, of Super Mario fame. The cartoon is a tribute to the Labour MP’s love of video games but it feels appropriate in another way, too. In recent weeks, Watson has done battle with the mutants of the political world: campaigning for (and securing) a major inquiry into child abuse allegations, leading the revolt against new “emergency” surveillance powers, and helping to organise a boycott of the Sun’s free World Cup edition. He has, as one Labour MP puts it to me, “been everywhere”.

In acknowledgment of this, the 47-year-old West Bromwich East MP asks me to “be kind” with him and apologises if he looks “a bit washed out”. Dressed casually in a beige linen jacket, purple shirt and desert boots, and slimmer than previously, he seems at ease as the summer recess approaches.

It is a year since Watson resigned from his post as Labour’s general election campaign co-ordinator during the internal war over the Falkirk selection contest, and he argues persuasively that the move has served him well. “I honestly don’t think I’d have been able to focus on the child abuse inquiry, spend as much time as I should have done on what comes after the hacking scandal, if I’d been on the front bench. I enjoy the freedom – it’s good fun,” he says.

I meet him shortly after Elizabeth Butler-Sloss resigned as the head of the child abuse inquiry, an event that led many to question the competence of Theresa May, who appointed her, but Watson tells me that he has been “won over” by the Home Secretary. “She’s done this with the best endeavours and she has good intent. Sometimes you’ve got to give people a bit of leeway.” His priority now is to ensure that there is adequate representation for the victims. “I met some of them this week and their tales are incredibly depressing. I met a woman yesterday who’d been in Broadmoor and was abused by Jimmy Savile. Their stories are really dark and it’s people who’ve been shouting for years and years and just not been heard. If we’re going to get this inquiry right, they’ve got to feel that this thing is robust.”

But while hopeful about the abuse inquiry, he is dismayed by the railroading through parliament of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (Drip) Bill with the support of all three main parties.

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“I think the legislation was wrong, I think the process of making the legislation was wrong. To bring it down to politics, I think we missed an opportunity to say to people that the Labour Party is changing, that we recognise that in our time in government we’ve not fully considered where the line should be drawn between liberty and security. There’s a whole group of people who left the Labour Party, or stopped supporting it at the ballot box, because they thought we had fallen on the wrong side of the security line . . . I think the symbolism behind it means that it’s going to be much harder for us to make the case at the election to a small but significant group of voters for whom this is a very significant issue.”

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Above his head is a framed copy of the final edition of the News of the World with the front-page headline “Thank You & Goodbye”, given to him as a present by Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary, for “an outstanding contribution to trade unionism”. It is Watson’s long campaign to bring the phone-hackers to justice (the pressure of which contributed to the end of his marriage) for which he is now best known. How did he feel on the day Andy Coulson, the ex-NoW editor, was jailed? “On a personal level, I felt sorry for him,” is his somewhat surprising answer. “It’s over for him; you’ve got to take responsibility for your actions.”

He adds that the fundamental issue is still there, “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.”

It was as a member of the culture, media and sport select committee that Watson formed an unlikely friendship with Louise Mensch, the Conservative MP who later left parliament for the US. “I liked her because she was a character,” he says. “She 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. What a missed opportunity for Cameron – she felt so uncomfortable with the political system 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.”

Although he is distinguished by his one-man campaigns, it is Labour that Watson has served all his life. He notes, with some incredulity, that it is now 30 years since he took his first job as a trainee library assistant at the party’s headquarters. After entering parliament in 2001, he rose to become a minister in Tony Blair’s government, resigning after signing a letter calling on Blair to stand down as prime minister (an act for which, as he noted last year, some have “not forgiven me”).

He returned to office under Gordon Brown, the man he visited the day before the letter was sent, ostensibly to deliver a present for his new-born son (in the manner, some said, of a mafioso in The Godfather picking up cannoli). Watson, long thought of as the Peter Clemenza to Brown’s Don Corleone, is still in touch with the former prime minister, who seems “happy” and “very motivated” by the Scottish referendum. He tells me that he feels both “optimistic and pensive” about the coming general election.

“The amazing thing about the political world we’re in is, because it’s so uncertain, it’s both exciting and a little bit frightening. The optimist in me says: ‘3-to-5-point lead, ten months away from the election, consistent lead in the polls for the last three years . . . We’re in good shape.’ The young activist from the 1992 election tells me that you can’t count your chickens – a lot moves in the year.”

After David Cameron’s Night of the Long Knives, does he think Ed Miliband should carry out his own reshuffle? “I think he’s got another reshuffle in him if he wants to do it this side of the election. There are certainly people who could really help us,” he says. Watson adds his voice to those calling for Alan Johnson, the former home secretary, to return to the front line. “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, though 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.”

He later turns his fire on those shadow cabinet ministers he regards as having been disloyal to Ed Miliband. “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.”

Watson, who was crucial in helping to secure the second-preference Brownite votes that delivered Miliband’s victory, is sincere in his praise for the Labour leader. “Ed Miliband is my friend; I believe in him . . . I’m more critical because I’m on the back benches, but there’s something about him that can change this flipping country. He’s got the skills and the view of the world that means he can change the country.”

How should Miliband act if Labour falls short of a majority? “The golden rule of elections is never to allow a political journalist to put a notional situation to you,” he observes, but then adds: “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.”

And what of Watson? Would he serve in a Miliband government? “I don’t know, to be honest. I’ve had an unusual journey. I think it would be unlikely that I’d want to go back. When I resigned in 2006 under Tony Blair, I said I never wanted to go back to the front bench and I was persuaded to go back, so ‘never say never’. But I think it’s highly unlikely that I would want to go back and, of course, I’ve got to be asked and I don’t know whether I would want to be.”

He adds: “If you’re a political campaigner, you don’t need the usual machinery of an ancient political party in order to get things done and achieve change. I guess what I’m saying is you can derive great satisfaction by being a curious backbencher.”

This lone hunter, you sense, will never be short of game.