Born in Sheffield, Tom Watson rose through Labour's ranks to become deputy under Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. Now, other MPs suspect he is out to split the party. He talks to Kevin Maguire about poetry, weightloss—and doing "what's right"by Kevin Maguire / March 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
If there’s any truth in Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” then perhaps Sun Tzu’s The Art of War illuminates Tom Watson’s manoeuvrings.
Watson read the 6th century BC Chinese military strategist’s treatise before he was briefly appointed a junior defence minister in the final government of Tony Blair—a Labour leader he soon helped to bring down. Watson’s allies believe it also partly shaped his tactics in battles with Jeremy Corbyn’s praetorian guard and sometimes the Labour Caesar himself. Retreating to the hills in the face of overwhelming left opposition after Corbyn’s 2016 second leadership victory and surprisingly strong showing in the 2017 general election, Labour’s deputy leader kept his powder dry.
Now that deep divisions over Europe and the poisonous row over anti-Semitism have visibly weakened Corbyn, Watson has emerged to resume combat. In the aftermath of eight Labour MPs leaving the party to create the Independent Group (TIG), Watson released a heartfelt video on Facebook where he sympathised with those quitting, refusing to criticise them—strikingly saying their decision was “premature” rather than wrong—and even echoing some of their concerns. Then he launched the Future Britain Group to rally MPs in the centre and on the right of the party—immediately gathering 130 Labour MPs to his cause. This triggered a frequently heard question in Westminster: “What is Tommy up to?”
The answer is surprising: pondering overtures to join a government of national unity. According to close confidants of Watson, pro-European Tories have approached him to inquire if he would be willing to serve. The idea sounds fanciful, requiring a political earthquake. Yet these are volatile times, turbulent and unpredictable. Asked about these rumours, he gave an intriguing response, referencing a Labour hero who had served under Churchill during the Second World War.
“Like Ernie Bevin I prefer Labour governments and I hope we never get to a point where our economy or security is so in peril that we get a government of national unity,” he told Prospect, before adding, “if needs must, we have to then do what’s right.”
Thomas Anthony Watson spent the first month of his life sleeping in the top drawer from a chest in his grandparents’ house. Born in Sheffield in 1967, he was named after a Yorkshire miner great-grandfather while a grandmother, Elsie, stayed in the Communist Party until the collapse of the Soviet Union. His father, Tony was a dustman and delivery driver for Fletchers Bakeries who later trained as a social worker, while his mother, Linda, worked as a medical secretary.
When Watson was three the family moved to Kidderminster, where the future Labour deputy leader went to King Charles I comprehensive. The gregarious teenager preferred playing rugby to studying and wasn’t encouraged to knuckle down by a teacher’s advice that working harder might earn him an apprenticeship in one of the area’s carpet factories.
He was, by his own account, a nerdy geek with long hair, devouring Robert A Heinlein’s science fiction and music magazines (Watson readily admits to reading trendy New Musical Express but blushes at the memory of buying poppy Smash Hits) and playing Dungeons & Dragons, catching coaches to London to visit a Hammersmith workshop dedicated to the game.
He dropped out of school at 17 without completing his A-Levels and moved to London with a friend looking for work. He survived an encounter with a knife-wielding Millwall football hooligan and was bailed out financially by a £300 win on the horses while drinking in the World’s End pub in Camden, North London.
Within months, he had landed a job—a £5,400-a-year trainee library assistant role with the Labour Party in its then Walworth Road HQ. He had been the only applicant. Watson clinched the role because he knew how to use a word processor. One of his tasks was to send Neil Kinnock press cuttings and he’s kept a letter from Tony Benn thanking him for help with research.
Watson’s career in the Labour movement almost finished before it properly started. He invited to a staff party a mate from Kidderminster who, in the revelry, scrawled “Tom Watson for El President” in very large letters on a fourth-floor wall. Mortified, Watson feared he was for the chop. Luckily for him the party general secretary, kindly Larry Whitty, was paternalistic rather than vindictive. Watson was ordered to find a bucket of soapy hot water and a brush then, with Whitty watching, scrub away the graffiti.
His slate cleaned, Watson was made a marketing assistant in a new fundraising department where he read books with titles like “Common Sense Direct Marketing” and discovered supporters replied to begging letters by sending money.
He got to put his teenage love of music into action after singer Billy Bragg launched Red Wedge to attract younger voters to Labour at the 1987 election. An excited Watson went to the gigs and promoted the dates to members and the public. But after that year’s defeat Watson quit, working first at Save the Children before he was headhunted as an account executive by an advertising agency for what he describes as a “short and unsuccessful” spell in the Mad Men world.
On a trip to Ireland to watch Wales play rugby in 1990, young Watson read Dante’s Divine Comedy. The tale of a man reflecting on the halfway stage of his life inspired Watson to study politics at Hull University. His subsequent bruiser reputation masks a bookish, thoughtful side to a politician who cites as his greatest literary influence Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, a spiritual journey of self-discovery.
Gloria De Piero, a member of Labour’s front bench, one-time reporter on breakfast television and a former flatmate of Watson in the 1990s, recalls an early meeting with him in Covent Garden. “He gets this poetry book out and starts talking about poems,” she remembers, still astonished more than two decades later. “He’s much more sensitive and intellectual than people think when they see him as a bruiser. The friends he had then are still the friends he has now. He has very long friendships which are good.”
Watson was a student activist, president of the students’ union, and still sustains links with his alma mater, regularly giving work experience to the university’s students. Yet just as he didn’t finish his A-Levels, he didn’t complete the degree and instead rejoined the Labour machine.
Organising by-elections and working closely with the party’s election co-ordinator Fraser Kemp, he was a cog in the operation that ruthlessly crushed the Tories and made Blair prime minister. The possibility of a political job in No 10 was dangled but never offered, so Watson instead took a job at the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), a union on the right of the TUC, before being elected MP for West Bromwich East in 2001.
After becoming junior defence minister in 2006 he pushed successfully for posthumous pardons for First World War soldiers executed for cowardice when some, arguably most, were suffering shell shock. But to this day, he blushes over a diary mix up in France that saw him climb out of an official car in shorts and rugby shirt to find a guard of honour greeting him. Watson failed to persuade his suited and booted personal secretary to pretend he was the minister instead—the Kidderminster kid cringing as he inspected the immaculate soldiers.
Watson’s politics were characterised as pragmatic trade unionist and he was much closer to Gordon Brown than Blair. Brown’s deeper interest in trade unions was a starting point. Crucial too was the accessibility of the chancellor. Brown was a rival monarch to Blair, involving himself across domestic politics, yet he still had or found more time to speak to newish MPs like Watson than a PM corralled in No 10 behind the black gates.
Though the ideological differences between Blair and Brown now look small, Labour was fast becoming two tribes going to war. Becoming a Brownite saw Watson shunned by the Blairites, pushing him closer to Brown.
The constant battles between the two sides came to a head in 2006, when Blair was forced to confirm he would leave office within 12 months—and Watson, despite being a relatively junior minister, was at the heart of it. He was the leader of the so-called “curry house plot,” where a group of MPs allied to Brown discussed how to bring down the PM. It also involved a curious visit by Watson to Brown at the chancellor’s home in Scotland, though to this day Watson insists—even in private—that he only visited Brown to hand over a present to the chancellor’s son. Watson’s resignation started the avalanche that forced Blair to announce his departure plans and paved the way for Brown.
Watson was rewarded with a job in the Cabinet Office, but he had made powerful enemies. The Sun’s then-editor, Rebekah Brooks, was a Blair cheerleader—she texted Sarah Brown demanding her husband dispatch with Watson because of his role in the 2006 uprising. Brown refused, but the Sun eventually got their man in 2009 by wrongly naming him as part of a scandalous smear operation involving Downing Street spinner Damian McBride. Watson sued the Sun and won but blames the controversy for the breakup of his marriage. His wife, Siobhan, was in tears after two carloads of men turned up at his home and started going through his bins. Watson was convinced they were sent by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. The company denied involvement.
Known as a bad enemy as well as a good friend, Watson’s revenge on the Sun’s owners, Rupert Murdoch and News UK, was spectacular. When evidence emerged of telephone hacking at the News of the World, Watson was as dogged as he was forensic. Murdoch was temporarily humbled, Brooks faced a trial and although she was acquitted, News UK paid out tens of millions of pounds in compensation and costs and the News of the World was shut down.
Not every campaign led by the crusading MP has been so successful. He has been one of the most vocal proponents of the theory that there was a child sex ring in Westminster involving senior politicians. Critics say it’s simply not true—Watson is quietly confident he’ll be vindicated by the inquiry.
With a reputation as a backroom fixer, Watson was never likely to run for leader—but deputy was a perfect fit. He won the five-way contest comfortably in 2015, defeating Stella Creasy and Angela Eagle, among others. But while Watson had envisaged being deputy to Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, which would have been relatively straightforward, he instead had to adjust to working with Corbyn, a man cut from different cloth. On the Sunday after the results were announced Watson and Corbyn established a working arrangement at a meeting in the chief whip’s office—the leader agreeing with his deputy that the party would back Nato, Trident, remaining in Europe and keep the system that made deselecting MPs a rarity.
For the first few months, the relationship seemed to work. But that all came to an end the weekend after the UK voted to leave the European Union. Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn told Corbyn in a phone call that Labour wouldn’t win an election with him in charge and he should quit. The Labour leader sacked Benn, precipitating a steady flow of resignations from the front bench. Throughout it all, Watson had been at Glastonbury—he was pictured drinking with trade unionists in the Red Rose Tent and dancing in a silent disco. As the resignations mounted up, Watson stayed in a field in Somerset, something he now privately admits was his “biggest logistical error.”
After almost 80 per cent of the parliamentary party backed a no confidence motion against their leader, Watson was assured by an official in Corbyn’s office that the leader would resign. Only after this, when Corbyn refused and a leadership challenge was formally mounted, did Watson then ally himself with those on the national executive committee who tried to block Corbyn from standing. But Corbyn prevailed, won the subsequent election against Owen Smith, and Watson sued for peace. He was rebuffed.
Every crisis is an opportunity and the formation of TIG, plus the mounting pressure Corbyn faces over Brexit, is a fresh moment for Watson to demonstrate his influence. While Corbyn ignored the massive People’s Vote demonstration in London in March, Watson spoke from the platform, endorsing a second referendum, saying “I trust the people I represent and only they can sort this mess out.”
The Future Britain Group isn’t, Watson maintains, a party within the party. And yet with Peter Mandelson and Kinnock attending the launch, never mind an endorsement from Tony Blair, the leader’s office views it otherwise.
“Tommy’s a good friend of mine,” says a shadow cabinet member loyal to Corbyn. “But I cannot think of another reason for him to do this other than to make himself a rival leader and if it comes to it, split the party. The people he’s got are all hostile to Jeremy. Unity to them is uniting to get rid of Jeremy and that’s not going to happen. So where does it leave them and us?”
Watson’s refusal to rule out the possibility of joining a government of national unity will only increase the suspicions among Corbyn’s team and supporters. But Watson insists that “someone who joined Labour as a kid on his 15th birthday” isn’t going to destroy it as deputy leader 37 years later. Indeed, he has been credited with persuading as many as a dozen MPs, including several who are Jewish, to stick with the party and reject overtures from Chuka Umunna’s TIG-ers.
Plans to formalise the faction with registered supporters, including councillors, and the launch of policy projects might bind in MPs toying with departing but it will also antagonise Corbyn’s team. Watson has assured Labour chief enforcer Nick Brown there will be no rival whipping on votes in the Commons—though it’s remarkable that the deputy leader of a party should have to make such a promise. He’s also urged Corbyn to restore elections to the shadow cabinet to give a dignified road back for MPs who resigned in the 2016 attempted coup. The leader, afraid he’d be isolated again, isn’t biting.
De Piero paints Watson and the Future Britain Group as saviours to avoid a repeat of the SDP. “Tom loves the Labour Party and he’s doing this to save the Labour Party. When the TIG group left a lot of us wondered has the ‘general election gone down the toilet?’” she said. “People who think he’s done it to split the party don’t understand. He will see this through and just wants to make sure all strands of red are included in the Labour Party.”
The slimline political heavyweight, who recently lost in excess of 100lbs in a fitness drive, has evolved over the years. Invited in a restaurant recently to rank Labour prime ministers in order of influence he uncontroversially put Attlee first and Wilson second. But his third, Blair, caused a stir given Watson was considered a great Brownite. Watson’s reasoning, that Blair in No 10 benefited hugely from having Brown while Brown in Downing Street had no Blair, reflects a newly open and less tribal temperament.
The younger Watson was a ferocious attack dog on other parties, particularly Liberal Democrats, and vigorously opposed electoral reform. These days he’s prepared to contemplate a fairer voting system and reaches out to rivals. This willingness to work with other parties even saw him team up with David Davis, the libertarian Tory former Brexit Secretary, in a successful legal challenge to the government’s indiscriminate collection of emails.
Watson’s interest in protecting individuals from intrusive surveillance and big data wasn’t shared by all of his close circle. Kemp, his former boss and mentor, ribbed him mercilessly for straying from bread and butter issues. “What are you going to be doing next” Kemp asked rhetorically, “delivering food parcels to Julian Assange?”
Watson now rejects the tag Brownite, but he certainly isn’t a Corbynite, so he’s reluctant to be pinned down. Pressed on the Labour strand he represents, Watson replied: “What do I stand for? I stand for a Labour Party with a national focus on ending inequality.” Blair never proclaimed that as his main goal and Brown might have thought that but would never say it. The irony is the leader most likely to put his name to that statement is Corbyn.
Watson surprised guests at a Faber reception by attending for fun rather than out of duty—as well as being deputy leader he is also shadow culture secretary. He composes poetry mainly in his head, shyly rejecting invitations to recite verses or show the slimmer volume of work that he’s committed to paper. “I’m not good enough to publish poetry,” he giggled when asked if it might see the light of day. “I love writing and if ever given the chance I would love to write a political thriller. There might also be a book in how to lose 100lb.”
Friends tell of Watson urging them recently to read a poem he’d enjoyed by Derek Mahon, the Belfast-born son of a shipyard. The title of the poem, “Everything is Going to be All Right,” is Labour’s hope, not a promise.