This is an extended version of my Total Politics interview with Tom Watson, which appeared in the January 2011 issue of the Magazine. He's incredibly open and honest about his time in government and the personal trauma he went through because of something I wrote...
Let’s start with the coalition; did you ever seriously think that there was a possibility of a Labour-Liberal Coalition?
Yes, I did actually. More than that I was actually quite optimistic that one might happen and might succeed, because I’ve had somewhat of an epiphany to coalition politics in recent years. What I never dreamt of in a million years was that they’d be able to arrange a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition.
Why didn’t you think that was possible? For three years now I’ve always thought that a) that would be possible, and b) quite desirable because I always thought that a lot of Liberal Democrats have more in common with the Conservatives than they do with Labour.
I thought that both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were politically agile enough to have wanted to form a coalition, I just didn’t think they would be able to carry their parties with them, particularly Nick Clegg because I do think that many of their leading lights would be very concerned with that brand of monetarism that they reacted to themselves in the 1980s. I think that’s probably borne out by the occasional comments from Charlie Kennedy, Ming Campbell and Simon Hughes. I really thought they would take a look at it, and then pull Nick back from the edge. I’ve not read the David Laws book, but there was obviously a lot of manoeuvring and arm-twisting in that 72 hour period when they were trying to put the deal together. I suspect there’s a lot of people on the back benches of the Lib Dems now who are regretting not speaking out in that period, but were a little bit ‘rabbit-in-the-headlights’ by the prospect of power. Whether it lasts or not? I think the jury’s out.
Why do you think that in the end it didn’t happen with Labour, because obviously you read the different books that have come out about it, the Lib Dem view is that Labour weren’t serious, they didn’t have any proper proposals to put to the Lib Dems, the Labour people were rude in the meetings, and yet you talk to Andrew Adonis and Peter Mandelson and they give you a very very different story.
I wasn’t party to those discussions. What I know of these things is that you only get the real story years later. I did have some conversations with Gordon Brown. I had some conversations with Ed Balls, and they left me in no doubt that there was good intent on their side. Were we organised and prepared for coalition, in terms of a proper structure for negotiation? They probably have a point. We weren’t prepared. What I think is interesting thing is there was clearly a huge level of preparedness on the Conservative and the Lib Dem side for a Lib Dem – Conservative coalition, so they kind of had the advantage. They knew the issues they needed to discuss, and had positions on every issue when they went into negotiations. I suspect our talks were hampered by a lot of shuttle diplomacy as people meet and squared off. And let’s also be frank, the truth is the numbers were harder to put together on a Labour – Lib Dem coalition, and that must have been at the back of everyone’s minds.
You said you had an epiphany on coalition politics. What do you mean by that?
I come from the grassroots of the Labour Party, I joined the Labour Party when I was a teenager, I worked for the Labour Party, I’ve run by-elections for the Labour Party, and I’ve been branded a tribal politician all my life, and occasionally have been.
Exactly. Only occasionally. I think the experience of two terms in government, two times as a minister in government, and particularly for me, my time at the Cabinet Office, which is a fascinating department where you see the traffic from all other departments, made me realise that we were in a zero sum game with some of that stuff, so I guess my view of the world was opening up and maturing a little bit. What was probably the most miserable period for parliamentary democracy of the previous century was the expenses scandal, and for a year I saw that two-party politics was grinding everyone into a pulp because there was no trust at the centre. The two party leaders, both Gordon and David Cameron, did not have an atom of trust between them, and had they sat down in a room and worked out a proper reform proposal, not one that gave us IPSA, not one that gave us headlines in all the other papers and actually properly reformed parliament, we’d be in a better place now. As soon as you see that up front, you realise you need an apparatus to deal with that, and sometimes coalition can do that.
This is what I think people outside the Westminster village don’t ever get. That all political parties are coalitions within themselves, and therefore you will always have fairly robust policy debates, debates about personalities.
Of course there are struggles within governments, whether single party or coalition, but the apparatus you put in place to implement those policy differences is absolutely vital. In that sense the likes of Gus O’Donnell are often underrated because they allow this conflict resolution to take place on a daily basis without it causing the government to judder.
I got the impression, probably fuelled by a conversation we once had, that you had at one point really fallen out of love with politics.
You know what, I describe it like a magnetic force to me – you can’t resist the attraction of it, but at some points in life you are totally repulsed by it. When it’s not going your way it’s a very lonely and solitary life is this political world we’re in. And then you have great moments when you get change, you can win on a policy issue, and it comes back, so it is a rollercoaster. I suspect there are a lot of MPs don’t admit that to themselves, but it is a magnetic force.
I describe it as a virus, one that you can’t actually every get rid of
It’s true, you can’t shake it off! My son said to me the other day, and I’ve not told his mum this, he said: “Daddy, why can’t I be on the television like you?” I looked at him and said: “Son you never would want to be on the television like me, but if you want to be on the telly you should go to acting or music school”. He’s only five, so he didn’t quite get the point.
My goddaughter hugs and kisses the television screen when I’m on, which is slightly bizarre. How have you found being in opposition, because it is a very different existence. And yet actually you seem to have taken to it like a duck to water.
It’s revelatory to me to be honest, and I’m deeply embarrassed to admit that I’m really enjoying it. It has moments of fun that government does not give you. It’s only moments of fun. There’s not a day goes by where I’m not reminded that you can’t make the great changes to the country that you can when you’re in power. But you can keep the government honest, and you’ve got to be quite quick and deft and adept at picking up issues and running with them quickly. You’ve got to be quite tactical in opposition. For some colleagues who have been ministers before, it does take time to acclimatise.
A Tory MP said to me the other day he thought you’d taken on the mantle of Eric Forth.
Let me know the Tory MP, I’ll send him a thank you card. Eric was a great chamber man, a great parliamentarian and he was dogged. I wouldn’t say that I’m as good in the chamber as Eric Forth was; he was quite brilliant in the chamber.
No, but what you’ve done is spotted weaknesses and then gone for them, which actually I would say most of your front bench have been fairly weak at.
It takes time. And remember the front bench – they’ve just got a new leader, they’ve got a bigger task to do in that they’ve got to do a rigorous assessment of where our policy went right and wrong over the past 13 years, and then they’ve got to develop a roadmap for the future and they don’t want any hostages to fortune, so it’s not easy being on the front bench. But you’re right, the truth is we’ve got to be a bit more pugnacious, and there’s nothing wrong with that in opposition. In fact it’s our parliamentary duty to hold the government to account, and that requires us to be quite tough in the chamber, and that’s what we’re doing. What some of us are doing.
Were you asked to be on the frontbench?
I was, yes. I was asked if I wanted to be on the front bench, I don’t know if that means: ‘we don’t want you on the front bench but we’re asking anyway because we know you don’t want to be on the front bench’! For me I’m in an unusual circumstance, in that other than Peter Mandelson I think I’m the only minister that left government twice voluntarily, although I think he might say it wasn’t voluntarily on some of his occasions. I left a year before the election for lots of personal reasons as well as political, and I’m very happy with the backbenches. In fact I’m really happy on my committee, the Culture, Media and Sport select committee. I really enjoy the collegiate nature. We’ve got a brilliant Conservative chairman in John Whittingdale, we’ve got some new intake Conservative MPs, and I think we’re beginning to get a grip of different policies and making a difference, and I find that much more intellectually satisfying.
Would you every rule out going back on the front bench?
Well, I ruled it out the first time I left government, and was persuaded to go back. It was probably a mistake to go back the second time if I’m being honest.
Because I didn’t want to do it, I was happy. I left the first time for lots of reasons; there was a cataclysmic day of resignations, and the manner of my departure was quite controversial, but for me internally I had committed myself to going to the back benches. And then I guess I’d not quite got it out of my system, the voices in my head were telling me ‘don’t go back’, and I was persuaded to go back. So the one thing I know - and I got accused of lying by Guido Fawkes for reneging on a previous pledge - is ‘never say never’, but I guess it is unlikely I’d want to pursue that route again.
Now, clear up the visit to Gordon Brown that summer, once and for all. Because nobody believes it was all a coincidence and you really just went to give his son a present.
It absolutely was. I’ve read Tony Blair’s account of this and I’ve read Peter Mandelson’s account of this, and one day I’ll tell all the detail from how I remember it. But essentially my resignation was a riot not a coup, it was a long-established visit to drop off a present for Gordon Brown’s baby.
Have you not heard of DHL?
Well I was due in Scotland anyway to visit the Earl Haig poppy factory. My wife and kids were going to come up with me because of that and we were going to have a couple of days in Scotland, and had she not bought a babygrow and bought something a child doesn’t grow out of, we’d have probably have left it on hold, but we wanted to deliver it and that’s what we did. That’s just the story. Obviously, looking back on how it panned out, if I was a better politician I wouldn’t have gone within 200 miles of Gordon Brown’s house, but that’s the way it is.
Well let’s talk a little bit about Gordon Brown. Obviously a brilliant man in many ways but he never quite connected with people clearly in the way Tony Blair managed to. There always seemed to be something eating away at him that meant he could never be comfortable in whatever he was doing.
I understand the description you give there. I’ve never quite put my finger on it; I’ve never been able to define how some people felt that about him. I think he’s a deeply warm man, a deeply interesting man. He’s got a mind that is always racing ahead, and it’s a mind that thinks about big ideas, and sometimes that means that he’s just way ahead of people all the time, so there’s occasions where he finishes off peoples’ sentences and things like that, and that sometimes left people uncomfortable I think. Certainly in the manner that he ran his operation, you had to be quite intellectually robust to get your argument over because he practiced a form of assertive Socratic dialogue. He would test a proposition to destruction, he would come at it from all angles, play devil’s advocate, he’d ask what the long term is, he’d ask what the short term implications are, and if you weren’t confident and if you hadn’t done your homework before you went in to see him you would wither, and some people withered.
You’re describing Margaret Thatcher as well...
Similar, yes, in the sense they are values and ideas driven people and sometimes, the day-to-day stuff they’d find frustrating. It wasn’t because they are naturally irritable people, but because they’ve got so much going on in their heads. They always say that he wasn’t a great communicator. They always say with Gordon, you know I’m not making a comparison with Churchill, clearly Gordon wasn’t as good on the telly as David Cameron, but it does show the tragedy of the modern age of politics. Had Churchill been around today he’d have been a total disaster, he’d probably never get elected to parliament. Seeing that kind of story unfold from the inside as well was another reason why I thought our metrics of political success seem to be slightly skewed here. The meetings that you didn’t see on the TV were the ones where you’ve got a row of Treasury officials coming in and, he genuinely did save the banking system, whether people like it or not. I’ve not read the Anthony Seldon book which I’m told is very good.
He comes out of it extremely well with regard to the financial crisis. Unfortunately that sort of thing was undermined by all the rest of it.
You get a package don’t you? Again with Gordon, I think history will be kinder to him than people are now, because I think people remember the big things. I heard an interview with Anthony Seldon which I thought was very fair minded, where he essentially said all prime ministers have their moment, and he rose for his moment.
Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson and one or two others have said that Gordon Brown’s problem was partly the people he surrounded himself with, who were, if not all of a type, fairly robust characters, who he maybe didn’t reign in enough. In retrospect, do you think there is something to that, and maybe he needed a few softer people around as well?
Yes, I think there is some truth in that. But I think all prime ministers want robust people around them, and they want people they feel confident and have trust in. I do think that Peter had a vested interest to make sure some of those other people were not there when he made his glorious return. There’s a bit of politics there, but I do think that’s overplayed. There were times when the pressure was on when you could probably make the case that Downing Street overreacted. I forget which very wise lobby hack told me this the other day. He said: “Where the problem for the administration was, was the more junior people in the operation trying to prove that they knew what was going on”. And that was interpreted as plausible deniable briefing, when actually nobody knew where it was coming from. I suspect the current government is afflicted with that problem right now as well because they’re a new administration and people are trying to find their feet. What I certainly know about Gordon is that he would have been appalled if some of the things happened that people have said happened. You can never get to the bottom of this briefing malarkey.
I think people were willing to believe things that were rumours because of the impression that was given.
Yes, I understand why they were prepared to believe it. My point is I don’t think any of these briefings that were supposed to have been a regular occurrence in Number Ten were authorised or particularly known about. I think that lots of them were overplayed. There we were twelve or thirteen years in, we’d got internal dissent, we’d got lots of problems on our doorstep, we’d got a resurgent, well-financed Conservative Party with a media-savvy new leader who was coming at us from all sides, lots of things were dripping out, people were seizing on stories and making them bigger than they would have been five years previously. And it just created an impression that there was this sort of machine that was allowing people to get rolled underneath it.
Why did you allow Derek Draper back in, because you of all people must have understood what the consequences of that might be?
Well, I didn’t allow him back in, I didn’t know he’d come back.
So they didn’t consult the person in the party who was known for their digital internet savviness?
No, he was back. He set up LabourList, which is still brilliant; it’s a very useful information tool for Labour people. He was back and I gave him advice
As did I...
Yes, well I think the first thing that shocked him was the ferocity. The first thing you do when you blog is become horrified by the comments section. For the first few weeks he was responding to every comment on the site and getting into all sorts of bother with people, and so I gave some advice about how you create a moderation policy, and essentially described the thing that you and I both know well. You try to create a community of people who are relatively respectful to each other, who can have a decent debate and those people who cross the line you have to deal with, it was better to let the community around you deal with it. So I helped him out, but I didn’t give a lot of direction, but I’ve got to say, when he came back I thought he’d completely transformed. I’d last seen him fifteen years previously when we were probably on opposite sides of arguments in the mid-nineties, over the future direction of New Labour. But when he came back he’d got married, had a child, rather like myself, and I found him very pleasant and polite. But we didn’t have a lot of day-to-day interaction. Not that you’d have thought that when you read the Damian McBride story.
Well indeed, that was a case in point. People, including me, were told things and believed them. All the trouble you and I had over the libel issue occurred because I was told by two Labour MPs that you did indeed know about all the McBride/Draper stuff. And so I was prepared to believe that because you were sitting next to this guy, you must have known about it, and therefore people do rush to conclusions. Without going into all the whys and wherefores of that particular incident, it was symbolic I think of the wider impression that people had.
Sometimes that’s fair and sometimes that’s manifestly unfair. Nadine Dorries’ recently told me that a former very senior Cabinet member told her that I was involved with it.
Probably the same one that told me.
I asked her to tell me who it was so I could take it up with them, but she decided not to, and I’m sure you’re not going to tell me. A) I didn’t share an office with Damian McBride, and actually my day-to-day contact with Damian was very limited. I probably only spoke to him once a fortnight, not that that was the impression given by that particular incident. It was all over this notional website they were setting up. Had anyone asked me how to go about that, I would say: ‘do not do this’, because the one thing I know about the internet is there is no such thing as a secret.
When you first heard about it, what was your reaction to what McBride and Draper had been up to?
My first reaction was: ‘Are you serious?’ But when I first heard about it, I mean you’re asking me to go through a very difficult time because my character was completely traduced, but nobody actually knew what the issue was when the story first came out in the Telegraph, I think it was on the Friday. We didn’t know what the content of the emails were until the Saturday, but like most people when it came out I was horrified. And then when I read your blog on Saturday evening, I thought: ‘this is my Easter weekend ruined. How do I sort this out?’ Actually, I’ve forever been kicking myself, because what I should have done was send you a very angry email saying: put this right. But I just thought you knew that I wasn’t involved in it but it was a political hit, which, again, is about the trust thing in politics. What I should have done was put the matter right just there. You’d filed your copy to the Mail on Sunday, and for me that was 48 hours of hell. Nadine Dorries on telly saying: ‘This is all about saving Tom Watson’, newspapers saying my reputation was on the line, and then what I consider a wider campaign by The Sun that lasted eight days, even though on the Monday you’d put the matter right on television. It’s one of those things in politics that is deeply unpleasant.
I certainly didn’t appreciate at the time, and later that week, and I think from what you’ve said, it really did have a shattering effect on you.
It did really. Maybe that’s just the time of life I was at; but it affected my neighbours, my son hid behind the sofa because he didn’t want the nasty man at the door to knock again, my wife was very upset, our privacy was turned upside down. I guess in politics you expect tough times, but you expect them in reaction to things you’ve done. You don’t expect that to happen unjustly. I can’t get out of my mind that this was just simply political malice without people trying to get to the truth. I’m not trying to blame you or anyone else, it’s just the way it was. I’m certainly not blaming you.
Well, it was what I wrote that started it, so I am quite happy to take the blame, even though I know, and I think I sent you the emails, when I found out the truth - and it was actually Paul Staines that told me the truth - I tried to stop it. My mistake was not ringing the Mail on Sunday rather than emailing them. It all went from that...
It gets out of all perspective when people are trying to hunt you down, you lose your ability to think clearly through something, and clearly in The Sun they knew. I know their political journalists were apologising, they were saying: ‘I’m sorry we’ve been instructed to write this story’. I know it was more than the issue.
Why did they have such a downer on you?
I think there were probably two things going on, but I don’t know this. I suspect that Rebecca Brooks had never forgiven me for resigning the first time around. That is what people have told me since, and she had been looking for a moment to score that point, which she did with aplomb. But I also think it was part of the process where the political position of News International was shifting and they saw it as a moment where they could reposition The Sun as being pro-Conservative, and that was the first big churning of the machine. In that sense I was just a cog in their game really. If you’re going to reposition The Sun, that was an issue that you can see why they took an editorial decision to do it like that. It was just unfortunate that they went for the wrong person.
You’ve told me before about the effect that had on your family. It is so difficult now for anybody, whether they’re male or female, in frontline politics to lead a normal family life and to protect their family, isn’t it?
I think it probably is.
If people get the impression that it’s just not compatible with a family then we only have ourselves to blame for the kind of people that will come into politics in the future.
I think that’s true. I think there’s something rotten at the heart of our political and media system that is ultimately going to eat us all up if we don’t do something about it. I haven’t got all the remedies but I do think we need press self-regulation that works, and that’s partly why I’m not opposed to coalition politics now. I think that could change the culture of parliament. I know I’m part of this system as well, I know what I’m saying might sound hypocritical, but there’s a danger, a long-term goal...
Are there two Tom Watsons here? Is it that there is still your inner attack dog that you try to repress, but actually it escapes from time to time?
You know, you might be right. I’m in a state of flux in life. But I think that’s true of everyone isn’t it, you’ve got your good days and bad days.
I know, I’m the same. I can write the most cogent thousand word article, appearing to be the most reasonable person in the world, and then the next day my inner Conservative is let loose.
That’s probably true.
Have you thought about quitting politics completely?
Yes I have.
Because you’re at an age where you need to make that decision - if you’re going to persevere or if you’re going to do something different.
Well I seriously thought about it last time, I came out of Number Ten....
I genuinely thought you were going to stand down...
There were points where I thought I was going to go, but, I know it sounds glib, but there was more I wanted to do and more I wanted to give. In the end, I stayed, and the truth is I’m really enjoying it now. I feel like I’m making a difference. I’m obsessed with digital policy, I’m pushing the boundaries of the transparency agenda, I’m really enjoying the culture committee, we’re doing stuff on Olympic legacy. I’m really enjoying that side of it. I can honestly say I’ve rarely been as enthusiastic about politics as I have been over the last couple of months.
Going back to the opposition stuff, you supported Ed Balls for the leadership. I’ve seen a completely different Ed Balls over the last month, in that I’m beginning to think ‘maybe they made a mistake’ in that he’s become a human. I always thought Ed Balls as a robot politician with no public empathy at all, and yet now I think he has transformed himself. I don’t know how or why or whether it’s deliberate. Have you seen the same thing?
I think all five of them who ran for the leadership are different people at the end of it. I think we forget that you see people on a journey in politics, and that was five people who were asked to step up to another level, and they were in a crucible for three months. The reason I think a long leadership election was good, was that these guys were pulled apart by party members. There was medium level media interest in them constantly. A lot of them found a lot out about themselves that they perhaps didn’t know, and probably Ed Balls out of the five of them is the one who most conquered his demons. He talked about his childhood stutter, which frankly must be a nighmare for any politician. I’ve seen him being ribbed when he misses a word out. He conquered that, he was very honest and candid about that. He was always so worried about crafting the right words in the media, it looked like he was worried about it. He’s been through it, he made his intellectual case, he made some brilliant defining speeches, found himself, found his own metier in politics and now he’s pretty relaxed in one of the top jobs in the shadow cabinet. I’m actually really proud of him; I think he’s more relaxed and a much better politician for it. Look at Andy Burnham in his new brief, he’s won an important concession on this school sports policy area, I don’t think he would have done that six months ago. They’ve all come out of it as different people.
What does David Miliband do now? Looking at it from outside, you can’t afford to have someone like him on the outside.
I don’t know what he does, I honestly don’t know. It’s not for me to speculate what he should do, and I don’t think he would appreciate me speculating.
No, but I would...
You would indeed. He’s an awesome figure in the Labour Party and essentially he’s got to come to a decision whether he wants to play a dominant role.
He clearly doesn’t think that he’s finished in politics judging by the couple of interviews he’s given recently.
I’ve not read those interviews, but I think he’s entitled for us and particularly the likes of me, to give him a longer period to reflect and to think about where he goes in life. I’ve been at those crossroads in politics and it does take a bit of time to work those through.
Iain Duncan Smith once said that the leader of the opposition has ninety days to define themselves. Has he defined himself?
Yes I think he has. I’m much more optimistic about Ed’s leadership than I read in most of the papers. I think he’s steely, you’ve only got to see some of the decisions he’s made. He was pretty brutal in Oldham. The fact he stood and won shows the strength of character that people probably didn’t think he had a year ago. I think he understands he’s got to play the long-term, he’s not going to be buffeted by these short-term tests, that his enemies are setting for him, these weekly Strictly Come Dancing-style points for how you do at Prime Minister’s Questions is no measure of whether you’re a good leader or not. The only test he’s going to have is the May elections next year, and he’s preparing us for them now. He’s reforming the party, he’s set up 22 policy commissions, I think he’s in good shape. He’s got a whole new PLP. Those new intake MPs: they want to win, they’re absolutely behind him and I think they give him sustenance and strength and people like him. He’s genuine, he’s authentic.
I think that’s the side the public haven’t seen yet. I think he’s an immensely likeable character, and I have quite a lot of respect for him. There is something there that isn’t quite right yet, and I don’t say that in a partisan way, just I think if he isn’t careful, the press have a huge influence, and they want to write him up in the same way they wrote up Hague and Duncan Smith, and he’s got to give them an excuse not to.
I disagree with that. I’ve just written an end of year piece for Labour Uncut. What do you write at the end of the year? Well, at the start of last year on January 6th Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon tried to take out a sitting prime minister four months before an election. Had you told me that we would end the year with a raggedy coalition, Nick Clegg a national joke, one cabinet member down, a number of PPS resignations, 3 points ahead in the polls with a unified Labour Party, I’d have banked that there and then. I wouldn’t have believed it possible, so I’m definitely a glass half full politician on this one. There are more fundamental tests of leadership than what the press say. The first is: have you got a political party that is prepared to accept the authority of a leader? I think we have. A few tired former ministers who are a bit niggly, but I think they’ll be OK. Secondly, have we got a leader who’s bright enough and intelligent enough to define where we want to be in ten years time? We’ve undoubtedly got that. Ed is intellectually agile and knows the direction he wants to take us but he’s smart enough not to lay it out on day one. And the third thing is, has he got people around him that can score points and do the day-to-day stuff? I think there’s plenty of them. I hate to describe myself as a gnarled-up old veteran at the age of 43 but I think I probably am, and there’s lots of people around him. We want him to win, we want him to succeed. We want him to succeed personally and for the party, and I think we’re going to help him. I think the prospects for his leadership are much better than people currently make out.
Siddhartha by Herman Hess.
The book you’re reading at the moment?
I’ve just read Disconnect by Deborah Davis which is a damning indictment of the trillion dollar mobile industry and their attempts to hide the health information of mobile telephony.
Your favourite view?
Standing on the bridge in Bewdley, a lovely little town on the River Severn.
Food that you hate?
Liver and kidney
Strictly come dancing or X factor?
I’m Strictly ecumenical. We watch both; I’ve watched all of it.
Peter Bone, although he’s a rascal not a villain. A charming rascal.
Four words to describe David Cameron
Always hiding from trouble.