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What does Tom Watson want?

Labour's deputy leader is a Brownite embraced by Blairites, a heavyweight-turned-lightweight and one of the last remaining obstacles to Corbynite hegemony. Now, as he campaigns for Remain, friends say he could yet join the Liberal Democrats.

On the afternoon of 19 March 2019, as Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee assembled, members were ordered to hand over their mobile phones. A deluge of leaks had prompted Jeremy Corbyn’s team to act. But one person refused to comply: Tom Watson. The party’s deputy leader insisted he needed his phone to monitor Brexit developments in the House of Commons. “There was a 25-minute stand-off,” one of those present recalled. When the meeting eventually resumed, Watson retained his phone. “He was tapping away at it the whole time,” an NEC member told me. 

The incident symbolised Watson’s status as one of the last remaining obstacles to Corbynite hegemony. Since 2015, the Labour leadership has assembled a more left-leaning shadow cabinet and appointed a loyal general secretary (Jenny Formby). But Watson, as the party’s elected deputy leader, has remained immovable and defiant. He has used his position to demand a second Brexit referendum (even before an early election), to excoriate Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism and to launch the Future Britain Group, an alliance of more than 150 MPs and peers denounced by some as a party within a party. Watson, his detractors say, has performed the rare act of pissing inside the tent as well as outside of it. “He’s tried to remove three leaders now hasn’t he?” a Corbyn ally quipped. “Two of them [Tony Blair and Ed Miliband] through resignation.” 

Watson’s interventions have not gone unpunished. In June 2017, a week after the general election, he was removed as party chair and replaced by Corbynite loyalist Ian Lavery (Watson remains shadow culture secretary). In February 2018, during a meeting of Labour’s Brexit subcommittee, Watson urged Corbyn to prepare to back a second referendum — a move that was met with silence from his colleagues — and was never invited to attend again. 

Following the resignation of seven Labour MPs and the formation of The Independent Group in February 2019, Watson held his first one-on-one meeting with Corbyn since the second Labour leadership election in 2016. He informed Corbyn of the creation of the Future Britain Group, assuring him that it was designed to protect the party’s interests, while also proposing the restoration of shadow cabinet elections and demanding stronger condemnation by Corbyn of social media trolls. After later sending a follow-up note, Watson never received a reply. 

As they watch such splits unfold, some MPs, including past foes, now speak of Watson as Labour’s last — and best — hope. Peter Mandelson, a bête noire of Watson throughout the Blair-Brown years, told me: “He has this honesty, he doesn’t mind calling things as they are. It might have been tempting for him to search for fences to sit on, to try and appeal to all wings of the party but he’s deliberately chosen to identify himself, his beliefs, his political outlook in very strong terms and people admire that. It’s what leaders rather than followers do and having been a follower he is now a leader, no longer the hatchet man, a machine operator. Now he’s come into his own.”

Mandelson added of his 2018 rapprochement with Watson: “I remember coming out of an early discussion and thinking ‘gosh, this guy is either the genuine article or he’s a very good actor.’ I don’t think my radar has failed me, I think he’s changed and I’ve stuck to that view.”

Watson is, by any measure, one of parliament’s most absorbing, beguiling characters: a Brownite embraced by Blairites, a Remainer from the Leave heartland West Bromwich East, a restless campaigner loathed by the Labour left and the Tory right, a technophile and autodidact, a friend-turned-nemesis of Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and, most recently, a heavyweight-turned-lightweight (Watson, who peaked at 22 stone, has lost eight stone since 2017). But what does he really want?

***

On the morning of 12 September 2015, Corbyn and Watson were escorted to a private room in advance of the public leadership announcement. They were permitted to take just one person with them: Watson chose Labour peer Alicia Kennedy, his campaign director, and Corbyn took John McDonnell, his election agent. When Watson was informed that his two children, Malachy and Saoirse, would be unable to accompany him, he threatened to leave (another demonstration of his stubborn nature). The children were permitted to stay. 

From the outset, Watson was cast as a Damoclean sword above the new leader’s head, or as Stalin to Corbyn’s Trotsky. He would support Corbyn, it was said, as the rope supports a hanging man. 

His fearsome reputation reflected his role in the successful 2006 coup against Tony Blair (Watson prefers to call it a “riot”), his victorious campaign against the News of the World (which closed in 2011 over the phone-hacking scandal) and his deep knowledge of the Labour machine. At the age of 17, in 1984, he became a £5,400-a-year trainee library assistant at the party’s Walworth Road headquarters. He had been the only applicant, having seen the job advertised in Labour Weekly, the party’s in-house newspaper, and enjoyed the added kudos of knowing how to operate a word processor (he later became the first MP to start a blog). 

Michael Dugher, the former Labour MP and shadow culture secretary, and a decades-long friend of Watson (the pair are godfathers to each other’s children), told me: “The reason he understood the party machine so well is that he did his illustrious stint as assistant librarian and then every three months they’d place him in another part: every section, every department. He met everyone, befriended many and built up the most phenomenal network.” 

Thomas Anthony Watson was born in Sheffield in 1967 and was named after his great-grandfather, a Yorkshire miner. His paternal grandparents met in the Communist Party and were members until the collapse of the Soviet Union. His father, Tony, was a binman and bread delivery driver who later trained as a social worker, while his mother, Linda, was a medical secretary. The latter attended the Holy Trinity Church in Darnall, the parish led by Church of England vicar Alan Ecclestone (known as “the Red Rev” in reference to his Communist Party activism). 

“She had that strand of Christian socialism in her,” Watson later said. “And that was a powerful force in my upbringing, though I didn’t know it at the time.” Watson was baptised as a Christian at Holy Trinity and eventually received communion while an undergraduate at Hull University, at the encouragement of his friend Sarah Gurling (who married Charles Kennedy, the late Liberal Democrat leader). He remains a believer and regular church-goer who prays “in times of great stress”. 

Watson’s earliest political memory is overhearing radio reports of the 1972 Watergate scandal; an early hint, perhaps, of his appetite for intrigue. His second memory is of power cuts in 1973-74. As he and his brother lay on their bunk bed in the dark while a storm raged outside, Watson asked his mother: “Why are the lights not on?” She replied: “Because Mr Heath won’t pay the miners enough money, son.” Watson’s parents were both Labour members, a trait their son inherited — as a seven-year-old he collected numbers for the party at polling stations during the February 1974 general election. 

Watson joined Labour on his 15th birthday because he “believed it was going to change the world, and make the town I lived in a fairer place and give its people a better break”. Unlike some future New Labour ministers, such as Peter Mandelson, John Reid and Alistair Darling, Watson did not have a Communist or Trotskyist phase. He was never detained by utopian visions of a post-capitalist society. For Watson, as for his political hero Ernest Bevin, Labour was a vehicle for the betterment of the working class. 

He left school — King Charles I comprehensive in Kidderminster — at 17, without completing his A-Levels, and moved to London to look for work, likening himself to Dick Whittington. The teenage Watson was a rugby player, a Dungeon and Dragons aficionado (he has since reviewed video games for the New Statesman) and a long-haired music lover and NME reader whose favourite acts included The Specials, The Clash, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg. “I never made it as a musician because I lacked perseverance, resilience, discipline and skill,” Watson later quipped. “That’s why I ended up being a trade union official and politician.”

After leaving his Labour post following the party’s 1987 general election defeat, Watson worked for Save The Children and, for a “brief and unsuccessful period”, as an account executive at a Chelsea-based advertising firm. “I wasn’t very good at the job — but don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved it,” Watson later recalled. “I loved the craic. I loved the deadlines and the pitches. I loved the drinking culture. I loved the wild creatives who kept odd hours and were theatrically temperamental. I loved the absolute bullshit of it all.”

In 1990, at the age of 23, Watson left his job to belatedly study politics at Hull University. Once there, he threw himself into activism, becoming chair of the Labour society and, in 1992, president of the students’ union, aided by his popularity among the rugby club. As he would again decades later, Watson defined himself against the left. 

“Student unions seem to be the ideological bugbear of the Conservative Party,” he told the Independent in 1993. “But their perception of what we do does not dovetail with reality. This is not some hot-bed of revolutionary socialism.” Throughout his long political career, Watson has espoused stances inimical to the left: higher defence spending, Trident renewal, and Nato membership – he hailed the organisation co-founded by Bevin as a “socialist construct”. 

Significantly, however, unlike some associated with Labour’s “old right”, Watson has long been a passionate supporter of EU membership (although he initially accepted the 2016 Leave vote). He was exhilarated by European Commission president Jacques Delors’ 1988 speech to the Trades Union Congress in which he outlined a vision of a “social Europe”. 

Such was Watson’s immersion in activism that he never completed his degree. From 1992-93, he served as chair of the National Organisation of Labour Students, a traditional stronghold of the party’s right, and later became the party’s national youth officer, proposing the motion that dissolved the Labour Party Young Socialists and created Young Labour. Watson campaigned for Tony Blair’s successful revision of Clause IV of the party’s constitution — which had committed Labour to the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange — and attracted the attention of his future political nemesis. 

“The first meaningful interaction I ever had with Tony Blair was back in 1995,” he recalled in a 2014 Catholic Herald interview. “He said to me: ‘You’ve got to understand that what all of this is about is turning us from an ideology-based party into a values-based party.’ And as it happened, I completely believed in it.” 

***

Despite never completing his A-Levels or a degree, Watson is one of the most intellectually engaged and philosophically-minded MPs. His recent reading includes The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near by US inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, James Lovelock’s Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence and The Future of Humanity by the Japanese-American theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. Watson’s other current preoccupations include agriculture (he keeps chickens at his Midlands home), nature and well-being, reflected in choices such as Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, Tibetan Buddhist Yongey Mingyur’s The Joy of Living and Dave Asprey’s Head Strong

“He consumes books and arts and culture almost in the same way that he used to consume food,” Dugher said. “I’ve met fewer people that are as well-read as him, fewer people who are as educated as him without having finished a degree. He’s far more intellectually curious than the Milibands put together.” 

During a parliamentary delegation to Ireland, Watson surprised colleagues by reading from a pocket volume of Yeats poetry at street corners. Labour MP Gloria De Piero, who shared a flat with him while a student, told me: “One of my earliest memories was going for coffee with him in Covent Garden. I liked talking about the Labour Party, I was just a bit boring, and he got out his poetry book and started reading. Tom is a lot more sensitive, thoughtful and intellectual than his public image has suggested.”

On 10 September it was announced that Watson would publish Downsizing next January, a book charting his eight-stone weight loss, the reversal of his type 2 diabetes and his exercise feats (he recently climbed Snowdon and cycled 46 miles from London to Surrey in the Prudential Ride London event). “It was looking back at Labour figures of the past who died in their fifties — Hugh Gaitskell, John Smith, Robin Cook — that convinced me to lose weight and get healthy,” Watson wrote candidly in a New Statesman diary in June 2018. 

Watson’s friends speak with pride, and some bemusement, of his transformation. Such was his aversion to walking, Dugher recalled, that “we used to say Tom got a taxi from the end of his bed to the bathroom in the morning.''

In his past incarnation (now referred to by friends as “old Tommy” or “FFB” — former fat bastard), Watson wrote the foreword to Bottoms Up, a 1993 guide to Hull’s best pubs, having drunk in every one. He almost blew himself and De Piero up after falling asleep on the sofa in their flat and leaving a boil-in-the-bag cod on the cooker. He drank and ate in Soho’s Little Italy restaurant until 3am, sometimes progressing seamlessly to the Labour whips’ morning meeting. On one occasion, while concluding a speech in a Tooting curry house, he landed with such force on his chair that it collapsed (the waiter hurriedly produced another in time to prevent him hitting the floor). 

Despite, or perhaps because of, such hedonism, Watson rose swiftly through Labour’s ranks. By 1995, he had become the party’s deputy election co-ordinator, serving under election co-ordinator and future Labour MP Fraser Kemp. But Mandelson, who was dispatched by Blair to oversee the 1997 general election campaign, put paid to this. “I’m afraid that after a couple of months I replaced both of them,” he told me. “I think it was rather a relief for Fraser but it did not endear me to Tom.” 

Watson and Mandelson would clash repeatedly during the long “TB-GB wars”. As late as 2009-10, the pair were immersed in factional warfare on Labour’s National Executive Committee. “Tom was in a very pivotal role in the candidate selection machinery on the NEC,” Mandelson said. “He moved against people he regarded as Blairites and on two occasions I intervened with Gordon to say this was unacceptable; one was Jonny Reynolds [the current Labour MP] in Stalybridge and Hyde, who wanted to succeed James Purnell, and Tom tried to keep him off the shortlist, and the other was Tristram [Hunt] in Stoke. On both occasions Gordon overruled Tom.”

In 2010, when Ed Miliband asked Watson how he should reply if asked whether Mandelson could return to the shadow cabinet, Watson responded: “Say you believe in dignity in retirement.” (A line Miliband delivered as his own at a Labour leadership hustings immediately afterwards.)

Mandelson says of Watson now: “He has been on a journey, he is not the same Tom who laid siege to Blairites and resigned from the government in order to destabilise Tony. He was an inveterate blogger, tough, rough, and I was often the butt of what he was saying and doing.”

***

The Labour Party, Ernest Bevin once declared, “grew out of the bowels of the trade union movement”. After his deposition by Mandelson, Watson became political officer of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union in 1997, the union renowned for its militant anti-communism, which he had joined as a 16-year-old. The AEEU, which was absorbed into Amicus in 2001 (a forerunner to Unite), was led by Ken Jackson, typically described as “Tony Blair’s favourite trade unionist”. Unlike some of its counterparts, the AEEU was proudly pro-European and Watson would regularly travel to Brussels with shop stewards as part of the union’s political education programme. 

In 2001, having been tasked with securing more seats for AEEU officials, Watson entered parliament himself as MP for West Bromwich East, a constituency held by Labour since its 1974 creation. He soon attracted media attention for his reliably populist interventions. Watson called for a ban on the sale of a new album by convicted paedophile Gary Glitter, criticised Prince Charles for buying German rather than British cars and supported the introduction of Identity Cards. “It is clear that some form of ID or entitlement card could make a big difference in tackling the illegal immigration which is causing such big problems,” he said. 

Most contentiously, he managed Labour’s 2004 Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election campaign, issuing demagogic leaflets declaring: “Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers.” (Watson subsequently told the New Statesman in 2011: “I wouldn’t write it again. I wanted to defeat the Lib Dems at all costs.”) 

The backbench MP gravitated early on towards Chancellor Gordon Brown’s court and reliably supported New Labour policy, including the Iraq war and £3,000 university tuition fees. “Voting against the government harms it and harms the party,” he declared in 2003. 

In recognition of such loyalty, he was appointed as an assistant Treasury whip in 2004 and a junior defence minister in 2006, further cementing his status as a Brownite praetorian. He most notably helped to secure a pardon for all soldiers shot for cowardice during the First World War.

By the autumn of 2006, faced with Blair’s continuing refusal to set a date for his departure, and Labour’s parlous poll ratings, Watson resolved to act. On the evening of 3 September 2006, he dined at the Bilash Tandoori in Wolverhampton with fellow Brownite Sion Simon, where, over chicken vindaloo and diced lamb in yoghurt, the pair plotted the downfall of the prime minister. 

The following day, a letter signed by 17 Labour MPs including Watson and Simon was sent to No 10 demanding Blair’s departure. Watson, the only ministerial signatory, subsequently resigned, writing that “it is with the greatest sadness that I have to say that your remaining in office is no longer in the interests of the party and the country.” 

Shortly before the letter was sent, Watson visited Brown at his clifftop home in North Queensferry, Scotland. To this day, he maintains that the visit was merely to drop off a babygro for the Browns’ newborn son and that, far from plotting, the pair watched Postman Pat videos with their children — an excuse that some have likened to a mafioso supposedly collecting cannoli. 

A sceptical Mandelson wrote in his memoir The Third Man that Watson “would not in those days have blown his nose without Gordon’s say-so”. Blair, who praised Watson earlier this year for “great leadership”, wrote in 2010: “I smacked him [Watson] very hard in my response”, adding that “later I felt sorry for him and regretted I had done it”. 

Watson, a hitherto obscure junior minister, was credited by the media with delivering the deathblow to Blair. Rebekah Wade, the editor of the Sun, and a close ally of the prime minister, vowed revenge. At the Labour conference, the paper’s political editor George Pascoe-Watson warned the rebel MP: “My editor will pursue you for the rest of your life. She will never forgive you for what you did to her Tony.”

Wade was true to her word. When Watson returned to government during Brown’s premiership (as an assistant whip and then as a Cabinet Office minister), she unsuccessfully demanded his sacking. The Sun later falsely reported in April 2009 that Watson had been involved in the “smeargate” scandal which led to the resignation of Brown’s aide Damian McBride. Watson successfully sued the paper but partly blames the stress for the 2010  break-up of his marriage to Siobhan, the mother of his two children. Dial M for Murdoch, Watson’s 2012 book, records that as the couple travelled to Cornwall, where his brother-in-law was due to undergo a double organ transparent, “neighbours at [Watson’s] constituency home chased off three men who had scaled a 6ft gate to rifle through paperwork in his garage.”

***

After returning to the backbenches in June 2009, Watson reinvented himself as a tenacious campaigner. He enjoyed ample revenge when his pursuit of News Corporation over the phone-hacking scandal led to the closure of the News of the World in 2011 (his trademark karaoke song during this period was The Clash’s “I Fought The Law”). “Taking on Murdoch in the way he did was extraordinarily brave,” Mandelson told me. “He’s got a lot of pluck. That’s a leadership quality.” 

The man previously typecast as a Brownite capo was to forge unexpected and, some say, questionable alliances. He accepted £500,000 in donations from Max Mosley, the former Formula 1 head, privacy campaigner and the son of Oswald Mosley, the late head of the British Union of Fascists. When Max Mosley was accused in 2018 of having published a by-election leaflet claiming that “coloured immigration threatens your children’s health”, Watson refused to return any of the funding. 

“If I thought, for one moment [Mosley] held those views contained in that leaflet of 57 years ago, I would not have given him the time of day,” Watson told MPs.

“He is a man, though, who in the face of great family tragedy and overwhelming media intimidation, chose to use his limited resources to support the weak against the strong.” 

In 2014, alongside Conservative MP and future Brexit secretary David Davis, Watson successfully sued the government over the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, which permitted the mass retention of communications data by internet and phone companies. 

“One of the virtues of politicians is those who just don’t give up and he’s one of those,” Davis told me. “Plenty of people in politics can raise excitement for a short while, it’s a different kind of character that keeps going irrespective of the adversity against them and never gives up.” 

More recently, however, Watson has been denounced as a “vehicle for conspiracy theorists” and urged to resign for promoting allegations of a Westminster paedophile ring.  Watson, who in 2014 met Carl Beech (“Nick”), the man convicted of fabricating the claims, and remained in email contact with him, has stated that “it was not my role to judge whether victims’ stories were true. I encouraged every person that came to me to take their story to the police and that is what I did with Nick.”

The affair, which led to a multi-million pound, 18-month long Scotland Yard investigation, has diminished Watson’s standing among Conservatives who might otherwise sympathise with his anti-Corbynism. “The truth is that the view of most Tories is heavily coloured by the Leon Brittan and Ted Heath stuff,” Davis told me, referring to two of the accused men (Watson apologised to Brittan’s widow for describing the late MP as “close to evil”). “I think that overwhelms anything else. If that wasn’t the cause I think they’d take exactly the view you describe but they are angry at him.” 

Though he is now best-known for his campaigning — Watson’s latest crusade is against the sugar industry — the MP has never lost his reputation for fixing, scheming and plotting. In 2010, he helped secure Ed Miliband’s leadership victory by persuading five Labour MPs to join him in defecting from Ed Balls' campaign.

Watson was subsequently rewarded with the posts of deputy chair and election co-ordinator, but his relationship with Miliband was sometimes a tense one. On 4 July 2011, frustrated by Miliband’s initial failure to intervene over the phone-hacking scandal, Watson publicly rebuked the Labour leader on Newsnight: “There have been plenty of hints to Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron that something very murky happened. They have let the Dowler family down tonight by not calling for a public inquiry.” 

Miliband aide’s were infuriated by the intervention and swiftly sought to reach Watson (forgetting that he was occupied with Labour candidate interviews). When Watson eventually met Miliband, who was practicing for Prime Minister’s Questions with a cardboard box, he was told: “You’ve shamed me into this”. Miliband promptly announced his support for a public inquiry into the scandal and called on Rebekah Brooks, as she was now known, to “consider her conscience and consider her position”.

On another occasion, in 2013, Miliband rebuked Watson for his chairmanship of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones (following a complaint by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander). The position, the Labour leader suggested, was not appropriate for a shadow cabinet member. When Watson later checked the parliamentary record, and pointed out that numerous colleagues also held APPG roles, he and Miliband had a fierce exchange, and Watson told the Labour leader that he would resign from the shadow cabinet. After Miliband urged him not to do so, he agreed to depart quietly at the next reshuffle. 

But events intervened. Falkirk Constituency Labour Party had been placed under “special measures” after Unite was accused of manipulating the parliamentary selection by allegedly signing up party members without their consent. Unite’s candidate of choice was a flame-haired Scottish activist named Karie Murphy, Watson’s office manager and Corbyn’s future chief of staff. (Though Watson and Murphy have spoken rarely since the second Labour leadership election, they have not fallen out.) 

Then, on the morning of 4 July, Watson was stunned to read a hostile briefing in the Spectator, stating that “several of those close to Miliband have doubts about his work rate and priorities”. The truce he thought he had agreed with the Labour leader just two days earlier had been broken. In his subsequent resignation letter to Miliband, Watson wrote: “I've thought about it and still feel it is better for you and the future unity of the party that I go now. There are some who have not forgiven me for resigning in 2006.” 

Having returned from Glastonbury a few days before, Watson signed off in idiosyncratic fashion: “If you want to see an awesome band, I recommend Drenge.” When Watson later met some old school friends in a Kidderminster pub, one told him: “You can’t be the only bloke who’s got back from Glastonbury and jacked his job in!”

The “butterfly effect” is a term coined by the US meteorologist Edward Lorenz to describe how small events can have larger consequences after he observed how hurricanes could be triggered by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. Had it not been for the Falkirk affair, and the subsequent introduction of a one-member-one-vote leadership election system, Jeremy Corbyn would almost certainly never have become Labour leader. In this sense, several years before 2015, Watson and Corbyn’s fates were intertwined. 

The former was previously a friend and housemate of Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary since 2010 and a pivotal Corbyn ally. The wall of Watson’s office once featured 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”.

More recently, in July 2019, McCluskey branded Watson a “fucking disgrace” for his challenges to Labour’s general secretary Jenny Formby over the party’s handling of anti-Semitism (Formby, who McCluskey had a son with in 1991, is currently undergoing chemotheraphy for breast cancer).

Many have questioned the true explanation for Watson and McCluskey’s spectacular falling out. Its origins lie in 2016, when the pair met to seek a settlement over Corbyn’s future following mass shadow cabinet resignations (which began while Watson was still recovering from a 5am finish at Glastonbury). At one point, McCluskey allegedly suggested that Corbyn could step down in 2018 — an offer MPs were then unprepared to accept. But Watson, who was angered by repeated leaks from the talks, eventually concluded that McCluskey had no intention of reaching a viable agreement. At the NEC, his traditional battleground, Watson voted that Corbyn should be forced to reseek MP nominations, potentially keeping him off the ballot. For McCluskey, whose union backed and funded Watson’s deputy leadership campaign, it was an unconscionable act of betrayal. 

***

Labour, the party Watson joined as an idealistic 15-year-old, is riven by conflicts and controlled by his lifelong ideological foes. But its deputy leader, friends insist, has never been happier. Though he has long been exiled from Corbyn’s court, he now feels liberated to speak his mind. 

“There’s a sort of zen-like calm to him at the moment,” Dugher said. “Those guys that are at the peak of their physical fitness, and have got that Buddhist zen-like calm, they’re like ninjas. I think Tom Watson is potentially much more effective now, you might even say more dangerous.”

However dangerous Watson is, for what purpose does he seek to wield power? In the view of a shadow cabinet minister, Watson’s repeated interventions over Brexit, most recently calling for the party to prioritise a second referendum over an early general election, are a cynical attempt to “stop Jeremy becoming prime minister. It may be that he wants to make sure we lose the election so that it’s the end of any left project for a generation.”

Watson has long been viewed as one of Labour’s most tribal politicians. But Dugher, one of his closest friends, suggests that he could yet join his past enemies: the Liberal Democrats. “If you’d said to me two years ago, would Tom ever countenance doing anything with the Lib Dems, I would have said ‘no chance’. Now I’d say ‘who knows?’”

In 2015, during his first conference speech since Corbyn’s election, Watson quipped that Labour MPs joining the Liberal Democrats would be “like quitting the Beatles for a Bananarama tribute band”. But he more recently shared a platform with Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and urged Labour to support a unity government if necessary to prevent a no-deal Brexit. 

Though Watson has never expressed any desire to succeed Corbyn, once unlikely sources now speak of him as a future leader. “Oh yes,” replied Mandelson when I asked. “In the sense that he’s capable of showing leadership and of taking on the responsibilities of leadership and being prepared to stand out from the herd, coming down clearly on one side or the other on key issues, that to me is what you call leadership. So I do see him as someone with leadership potential.

“He doesn’t panic, he doesn’t lose his cool, he doesn’t get steamed up, even when he’s under pressure he’s extremely steady. That’s another leadership quality. You could never have said that about someone like Ed Miliband who seemed to live in a state of semi-permanent panic. That calmness, almost zen-like quality. It makes him easy to talk to and rather good company.”

The French philosopher René Descartes once advised: “Conquer yourself rather than the world.” Tom Watson has conquered a prime minister, a national newspaper and much else. But if, in a fraught political era, he has achieved rare happiness it is perhaps because he has conquered the man who was sometimes his greatest enemy — himself.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.