Why has Tom Watson given a speech about what his party leadership should do on Brexit? The party’s deputy leader has urged Labour to ‘unambiguously and unequivocally back Remain’ and to campaign for a referendum ahead of an election. This is contrary to the current frontbench position that a referendum should contain a ‘credible Leave option’. So why, given Watson sits with Jeremy Corbyn in private shadow cabinet meetings each week, has he gone public with this?
The speech is a symptom of how bad relations are between Watson and the leader’s office. As I wrote in the Spectator recently, the two men at the top of the party have only had two private meetings together since 2016, and memos from the deputy leader to the leader have gone without reply. Watson has fallen out so badly with Len McCluskey, the powerful Unite leader, that the pair are no longer speaking, despite once being flatmates. Today McCluskey tweeted ominously: ‘Good speech from Keir Starmer. Great to hear him supporting Jeremy Corbyn. All genuine Labour MPs should do the same. Get behind your leader.’ So there is little chance of Watson getting a hearing in private.
On top of this, Watson needs to show his colleagues that there is value in staying and fighting. Part of that involves there being regular evidence of a fight taking place, and it’s much easier to do that using public speeches.
The turmoil in the party over its Brexit position is partly happening now because up to this point, the focus of the leadership has been on keeping Labour together. That is why there have been so many confusing Labour positions on the matter. MPs who have complained to their whips that the latest amendment to one bill or another doesn’t actually make sense have been told ‘yes, but we need to keep the party together so please can you vote with us’. Now, attention is moving from party management to electoral appeal, and no one is quite sure which group of voters they want to alienate: Remain or Leave?
Watson’s calculation is that there are more Labour Remain voters and that the Liberal Democrats could make the party’s life pretty miserable with their very clear pledge to revoke Article 50. Even if Labour doesn’t want to go that far, it needs to be clearer, even though ambiguity is far more comfortable.