Considering the events surrounding his turbulent 18 month spell as one of the most powerful figures in the Labour Party, culminating in a departure from his job which wouldn’t have looked out of place in an episode of The Thick of It, Peter Watt has remained remarkably loyal to the organisation which chewed him up and spat him back out in November 2007.
As General Secretary, Watt was the fall guy for the ‘Donorgate’ scandal, a controversy surrounding the issue of third-party donations and one which threatened to envelop the Prime Minister unless responsibility was shifted elsewhere. Initially, Watt understood that it was necessary to relinquish his job in an effort to bury the story once and for all. “This had happened on my watch and I wanted to do whatever it took to put it right, so if it took me resigning to be the lightning rod, then I was prepared to do that”. It was to be, as the old cliché goes, for the good of the party.
However, he was utterly unprepared for what was to happen the day after his resignation. “I was in the back of the cab listening to Gordon Brown’s press conference on 5 Live”, Watt recalls, “and as we turned the corner to go to the Electoral Commission, Gordon actually said that I had broken the law. There was no police investigation, there was no criminal investigation at that stage, but Gordon told the world that I had broken the law”. It was a stomach-churning moment for a man who, only the day before, had been promised by senior colleagues that he would be looked after – it was an unwritten rule that he would be supported, rather than condemned, until the furore died down. In stark contrast to being supported, “the Prime Minister of the country [was] standing up and saying, ‘a crime has been committed, he’s guilty as sin… and at that point everything had changed. I said to someone I was with ‘they’re going to throw everything at me now’.”
This was a shameless piece of political manoeuvring – an attempt to scapegoat a man who had already paid with his job in order to shield the big players from the spotlight of the scandal. Watt is in no doubt as to who was the architect of this strategy. “It was a very Gordon thing to do – you find someone to blame and you blame someone hard, you keep blaming them… apportioning blame was a huge part of his approach to politics”.
Perhaps, he reflects with hindsight, the events of late 2007 were a blessing in disguise. His wife, who felt that the job was taking over his life, had threatened him with an ultimatum just months beforehand – it’s me or the job – and Watt admits that he would certainly have been divorced had he continued as General Secretary. “There’s no trade off at all – it’s basically the party or nothing, the job or nothing, so there’s no trade off… I would have stayed, and I would have rationalised it, it would have been for the good of everything else. I would have been doing it for entirely altruistic reasons – I would have been lying and deluding myself, but that’s politics.” It’s a startling insight into the insularity of the ‘Westminster bubble’, “a very, very strange existence in which you’re obsessed with things that the vast majority of the population just aren’t obsessed with at all”. This is one of the more keenly-felt components of Watt’s critique of 21st Century politics, and his shoddy treatment at the hands of senior Labour Party figures clearly rankles with him to this day. There understandably remains residual bitterness towards those who had promised to protect him, especially Gordon Brown, for whom he “hugely, massively” lost respect.
Having been cleared of any wrongdoing by the CPS in 2009, Watt had the opportunity to set the record straight. His book, provocatively subtitled My Story of Cowardice and Betrayal at the Heart of New Labour, caused something of a stir on publication just months before the 2010 general election. A damning indictment of a Prime Minister whose popularity amongst the electorate had all but vanished, he was “absolutely pilloried by party loyalists for the timing of it”, but has no regrets. In terms of revelations about the complete breakdown of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Watt accepts that whilst he was, “the first person from inside to actually say it”, he had merely, “confirmed what people knew but had always denied”.
Nonetheless, Peter Watt remains a passionate supporter of the Labour movement, and talk turns to the future. As someone with considerable experience at the heart of the party, he is uniquely placed to consider where a party in the doldrums with an ailing leader must go from here. But there are endemic problems within the party which need to be overcome before there can be any talk of winning elections. “I think we are a split party… there is a real schism in the party about the future direction that the party needs to take, and the policy implications for that”, he argues. Moreover, there is some scepticism as to whether or not Ed Miliband is the right man for the job. Watt voted for David, not Ed, during the leadership election, though he insists that he can foresee a scenario in which we have a Prime Minister Ed Miliband by 2015. In order to achieve this, however, Miliband must first overcome his presentational difficulties. “I think what Ed finds it difficult to do is to connect emotionally with the electorate… he just can’t make a speech. He’s very wooden and unimpressive, but when you see him on a one-to-one or talking to an audience he’s very impressive, and quite natural.”
Far more crucial than presentation, Watt argues, is that Labour regains a sense of what it stands for, of its core ideals. He is unequivocal that, “you just can’t win an election from the left”, and is sceptical of the Labour leader’s apparent efforts to redefine the centre ground of British politics. Instead, Watt is convinced that Miliband’s chances of overhauling the Coalition government in three years time lie with him having the cojones to take tough decisions and set out a vision for the future.
“What Labour has got to do is send some really strong, powerful and unambiguous signals about its general direction of travel. So for instance, we say we are in favour of welfare reform and making work pay, but we’re going to vote against everything the government’s doing on welfare reform; we accept the fact that the deficit is too large, but actually we don’t agree with the government’s cuts and we wouldn’t make them, but if we win the next election we accept the fact we can’t reverse them.”
“We’re not being really big and bold and saying, that’s it, there’s the line, that’s what we believe in. And that’s all we need to do at this stage. We need to be painting big bright colours and we don’t, we just keep nuancing and writing in shades of grey.”
Peter Watt’s book ‘Inside Out: My Story of Betrayal and Cowardice at the Heart of New Labour’ is out now