Last week I was talking to a member of the shadow cabinet about Jeremy Corbyn’s impending victory as Labour leader. ‘Forget about coups and resistance movements. There’s only one person who can save the party now — and that’s Tom Watson.’ It’s a common theme: those who had just recently denounced Watson as a fat thug now see him as the party’s only hope of salvation.
On Saturday, half an hour before Corbyn’s almost certain coronation, Watson will be unveiled as his party’s new deputy leader. He will appear a rather unlikely saviour. His dark suits and heavy jowls give him the appearance less of a political healer than of a low-rent 1970s mafia grunt. There was a time when that was an image Watson would have cultivated — first as a fixer for the right-wing AEEU union, then as a hit man for Gordon Brown. But he is older and more sensible now.
Or so his colleagues hope. Labour is currently a party without champions. Ed Miliband has gone, David Miliband still sits across the water, Ed Balls has gone and Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have nearly gone. Chuka Umunna has been and gone. Dan Jarvis didn’t even arrive. Anyone with Blairite branding has gone for good. ‘Basically, Tom Watson is the only big beast we’ve got left standing,’ one backbench Labour MP told me this week.
And he is. The key question exercising his colleagues is precisely where he will be standing over the next five years. At his leader’s side? Directly in front of him? Or directly behind?
As well as being one of Labour’s few big beasts, Watson is one of its independent thinkers. He was a central figure in the Brownite court, but once it fractured in the wake of Brown’s 2010 election defeat he resigned from his job and struck out on his own. He is loud on defence, hand-in-glove with the unions and a staunch opponent of the government’s austerity agenda. He helped Ed Miliband take the Labour leadership, only to break with him over his handling of the Falkirk candidate-selection scandal. The Tories see him as a villain, but they’re not sure what sort: he’s difficult to pigeonhole.
This places him in the unique position of being seen by both opponents and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn as a potential ally. And both sides may be right — or wrong.
Those hoping Watson could help instigate a rapid putsch against their new leader will be disappointed. He does not believe that Corbyn’s election has exposed a traditional left-right split, but instead one between grass-roots Labour members, who have been enthused by Corbyn’s candidacy, and MPs, who have been appalled by it. This kind of split, he thinks, is a much graver danger to Labour’s survival. Reconciling MPs with activists will be his personal priority as deputy leader.
But as he knows, the healing cannot take place if the party is still at war with itself. Hence his guarded warning this week to Corbyn’s supporters not to attempt a purge of MPs who are seen to lack the requisite ideological purity. Even some of Watson’s friends see a certain irony in such a bruiser adopting the role of unifier. ‘It’s going to be hard for some of the Blairites to come to terms with the idea of Tom being the guy who pulls everyone together. A few of them have got even longer memories than he has,’ one MP told me.
This is a reference to Watson’s infamous role, almost a decade ago now, in the coup that finally forced a departure date out of Tony Blair. But the remaining Blairite MPs can forgive that act of regicide as long as Watson, too, is ready to move on. ‘I’m prepared to sit down and have a drink with him and see what we can do to get the party back on its feet,’ one Blairite shadow minister told me. ‘The question is, does he want to sit down and have a drink with me?’
The answer is probably yes — but a quick drink. Not least because Watson appears to have decided that it’s time to embark on a new political journey. For most of the last Parliament he operated on his own, embarking on a series of solo crusades against phone-hacking and establishment paedophile rings. But the mere act of standing for the deputy leadership was evidence that he wants to move back into the political mainstream. ‘Tom knows he can’t juggle the role of deputy leader and keep leading on these issues in the way that he has been,’ an ally says.
Nor is the journey entirely political. At the height of the phone-hacking scandal, Watson became a celebrity favourite, fêted by stars of stage and screen for his fight against their tabloid tormentors. It was a seductive moment that he was moved to preserve in a book, Dial M for Murdoch. ‘If you talk to Tom now, I think he’d probably admit he allowed his head to be turned a bit by all that,’ says one colleague. ‘I think that’s another reason why he ran for deputy. He wants to get grounded in some proper politics again.’
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party will be the scene of plenty of proper — and improper — politics over the course of the next couple of years. And Tom Watson will be at the centre of much of it. Until the moment of truth.
The question is when, rather than whether, a move will be made to unseat Corbyn. The new Tom Watson knows that his role as deputy means that he cannot be part of any plot. But enough of the old Brownite left is in Watson for him to know that it would not be electorally viable for Labour to fight an election with Corbyn at its helm. When the times comes, he is unlikely to stand in the way of what needs to be done. So no, Tom Watson is not the only man who can save Labour. But he’s certainly one of them.