When I was a by-election candidate – the last MP elected in the 20th Century, it occurs to me as I write this – I was driven around events and tucked in at night (an important job at a by-election) by a big, friendly union guy. This was Tom Watson. He’d been selected as a candidate in the forthcoming general election and folk told me he’d one day be an important mover and shaker behind the scenes at Westminster. After spending a lot of time with him, though, I couldn’t see why folk didn’t think his intelligence and super way with people would lead to him being a big player in the scenes themselves. I understand now why some Blairites saw him in this way; they thought he’d be just another union acolyte. But now I also understand how the deep Blair/Brown divide in the party then led to some folk missing Tom’s likely future great importance within Labour.
Within a few short years at Westminster, Tom had become a key player inside Gordon Brown’s circle. In due course, it was Tom as just a junior minister who wielded the knife and forced Tony Blair’s departure (he was literally en route to my constituency when he did it and had to cancel a meeting, as defence minister, with old soldiers in Falkirk). That required Tom to unite a number of Blairite and Brownite MPs. Tom was very close personally and professionally with the Unite leadership and of course that’s a significant thing in today’s post-Blair/Brown Labour Party. He also made a big public impression through campaigns against the Murdoch newspapers. All of these things put me a long way from Tom in the Labour Party, yet he was always an easy person to stay on very good terms personally with. He’s clever, he’s a rounded politician and can be charming but perhaps most important – until now – he is a quite exceptional proponent of the dark arts.
For the latter reason, I always told people Tom would be the Deputy Leader of the party one day. I don’t deny that Tony Blair was capable of some impressive dark-artery, but when that characteristic comes up too high in a politician’s perceived traits it tends to reduce their chances of being a successful number 1 (Gordon Brown is the perfect example of this).
And yet, Tom seems very likely to be the Labour Party leader very soon. Today, Tom’s being described some papers as Jeremy’s deputy. This phrase conveys an important misconception. Tom is Labour’s elected deputy leader. His status is unique. He’s un-sackable and very powerful figure within the party in his own right.
It’s all over for Jeremy today, I think. He’s a nice man but he’s been unable, unsurprisingly, to find a middle-way between his staff, many of whom actually hate Labour MPs, and Labour MPs who at least don’t want to be laughed at when they claim during the coming election that Labour could form a government. I think he’ll announce his resignation now. But what and who will come next?
The many decent New Labour types – with the really super Dan Jarvis at their head – won’t have enough support with the new Labour membership base and under the new rules to win a leadership race. But while many of those new Corbynite Labour members are more concerned about impossibilist politics which make them feel good rather than winning elections, the larger balance still want to have a reasonable stab at forming an actual government. John McDonnell is a serious man who has surprised many people with his versatility during his period as shadow Chancellor. He was my next door neighbour at Westminster; he, I and Jeremy Corbyn sat on the anti-Trident group together too and I found him clever and personable. But he seems to have ruled himself out as the Corbynite successor and in any case he is much more of a Marmite guy than Jeremy (whom most folk think a nice man). John is a much harder man. I don’t think any other person close to Corbyn will make a better fist of it than Jeremy. I’ve written before about Dave Anderson’s qualities, but I don’t think it’s likely that he’ll be a player here.
So if not a New Labour figure nor a Corbynite, then who? It seems obvious.
Tom Watson is the only politician who is highly rated by both sides and who is a genuine time-served political leader whose rise has come under his own steam. Of course, he has been a creature of patronage at times (Brown, Unite) – but that’s an important part of the political game in itself. There’s no doubt he has created his own space and gravity. Andy Burnham’s tried to occupy that ground even over the weekend, but Tom will steamroller him so I think Andy will stick to seeking to become a super Mayor of Manchester.
I don’t know if Tom Watson can be the guy who brings the Labour Party in England and Wales (Scotland’s going independent, I’m sure of that) back into government one day, but he can be the person who has enough appeal and credibility across the party to serve as a stabilising leader through the coming election. Beyond that, who knows? I think he may well surprise a lot of people.