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Why I turned on Gordon Brown

For some, I have unforgivably stepped outside the political tribal system. But loyalty is a two-way

What a week. The decision to write my book about life inside the Labour Party and working alongside Gordon Brown, Inside Out, was not easy. I questioned my motives, the timing of its publication and the purpose. It was with all of that in mind that I sat on Saturday 9 January having a pint with my brother, Damien, and brother-in-law, Franki, waiting for the first editions of the Mail on Sunday to come out.

The paper was publishing the first part of the serialisation of my book, and I was nervous. Damien and Franki tried to make small talk, but I kept checking the internet for news. And then the texts started - it had begun. How would people react? What would the response be? I was about to find out.

Telling my story

For the previous few weeks, tension had been mounting as Isabel Oakeshott (deputy political editor of the Sunday Times) and I completed the book in record time. She had done a brilliant job in writing it, but the truth was, I was too close to know whether anyone else would think it was any good. My wife, Vilma, and my mum were worried, but not about the quality of the book. Neither wanted me to be subjected to the sort of abuse that I received in the media when I resigned as general secretary of the Labour Party in 2007. But both knew that I was determined to tell my story.

Love machine

Working in front-line politics is like working in a goldfish bowl: everything you do is a potential story, good or bad. Elected politicians rightly have their say, argue their corner and defend themselves. It's different for the staff of a political party. As a political staffer, you know there's a risk that one day you could, however inadvertently, become a bad story yourself.

You know, too, that if and when that happens the "machine" will protect you as best it can. It is an unwritten but understood insurance policy andgoes to the heart of how and why political staff will go the extra mile. Yes, they believe in the party - but also that the party values them. When a difficult story breaks, there is an expectation that although it needs to be "handled", it will be handled together. It is a bond of loyalty that, once broken, is very hard to replace.

Branded a criminal

Over the years, party staff I knew became the news; others looked on with a "there but for the grace of God go I" attitude. They were, however, reassured by the duty of care that the party showed to those in trouble. I naively expected that same loyalty would be shown to me when the "Donorgate" scandal broke in November 2007. I know that when it wasn't, the impact was felt by staff across the party who saw how, under "new management", they could expect to be treated if things became tricky for them.

The impact of my enforced resignation two years ago was felt acutely by my family. In a botched piece of political management, I was (falsely) branded a criminal and the subsequent 18-month police investigation into my affairs carried a heavy price. One of my children was bullied at school, my mum was in pieces, and all the while Vilma was pregnant. This was all happening just weeks after my dad had died.

The election that never was

And so, I have decided to tell my story. I don't think it is a bitter book - angry occasionally, perhaps, but I don't think that is surprising. It is a book about what it was like to be involved in some momentous political events, what it felt like to be there and what the impact was on my family. The truth is that I was addicted to work and neglected home. I hope that I am honest about my mistakes; I think I am. I hope, too, that I do not go in for self-justification.

I talk about events that are already well documented - cash for honours, "Donorgate", the election that never was, Labour's financial problems and the transition from Tony to Gordon. I write about some of what is less well known - of how I became general secretary, the campaign trail and the death of my dad.

Who said that?

But why tell it now? The reality is that, immediately after the next election, whatever the result, there will be a glut of books about the New Labour years. Senior politicians and political correspondents will all have their say. The rule is that people like me, party staff, don't usually talk; we keep secrets and protect our political masters. If I was going to break that "rule", as I have, and tell my story, then the only time it would be heard was now.

It wasn't until May 2009 that the Crown Prosecution Service announced that I was not to face charges under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. We didn't actually start writing the book until the summer of 2009; we couldn't have got it out any earlier. Some have suggested that I am publishing the book now so that it sells more copies. Well, call me old-fashioned, but I do want people to read it! Others have suggested that I have written it because I am arrogant. Well, I guess there is some truth in that. If you don't (arrogantly) think that you have something interesting to say, then you don't write a book.

Douglas Alexander denies saying that he was worried that people wouldn't like Gordon the longer they got to know him. I don't blame him for that - but it doesn't mean it wasn't true.

Tribal system

It seems now that Gordon will lead the Labour Party into the general election. He is undoubtedly a political heavyweight with years of experience of government; he just finds connecting with people difficult.

The public will have to choose between this and Cameron's lack of experience but greater empathy. Perhaps substance will win out over style - but it will be tough.

For some, I have unforgivably stepped outside the political tribal system. I may have been betrayed by those who should have stood by me, but now I have become the betrayer. I will have broken faith with their expectations of loyalty.

However, it is no longer that simple. Yes, I remain a Labour Party member. Yes, I remain a party donor. But loyalty is a two-way street, and I would hope that, whatever people feel, they will understand why blind loyalty is no longer something I am willing or able to give.

Peter Watt was Labour's general secretary from January 2006 to November 2007
“Inside Out" is published by Biteback (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power