POLITICS
06/11/2019 23:43 GMT | Updated 07/11/2019 09:59 GMT

Tom Watson's Exit Proves The Rebels Are The Masters Of This Election

As both main parties lose big names, the status quo in this election really isn't an option.

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Elementary, Mr Watson?

In today’s National Executive Committee meeting, Tom Watson wanted to know why his West Midlands colleague Roger Godsiff was being axed as a Labour candidate. When he was told it was because Godsiff had rebelled four times on Brexit earlier this year, Watson couldn’t resist a wry observation. “Jeremy rebelled 500 times against this party, but was always readopted by the NEC as a candidate,” he said.

Those present, both his enemies and his allies, thought it was just ‘Tom being Tom’, tweaking the tail of the leader’s record. Little did any of them know that in fact it was the deputy leader’s last hurrah, as deputy leader and member of the NEC and shadow cabinet.

Watson’s departure was such a tightly-kept secret that even some of his closest friends were shocked at the news. Despite rumours that other senior ‘moderates’ would follow him, so far none have and his exit is seen as a personal decision, albeit one with huge symbolism. It’s worth remembering that a third of the parliamentary party joined his Future Britain Group earlier this year to stop centrists fleeing to the short-lived Independent Group.

Watson was seen as increasingly semi-detached from both the shadow cabinet and the NEC, often not turning up to either. Both his importance and his impotence were underlined in dramatic fashion when Momentum’s Jon Lansman tried to axe his role on the eve of the party conference in September.‌

Lansman came within a whisker of getting his way (but for a couple of NEC members turning up late, it would have worked). Gordon Brown was so furious that he rang Jeremy Corbyn to ask him what the hell was going on. Corbyn was equally irate at the ‘student politics’ that could ruin his pre-election conference.‌

Yet Watson could see the writing was on the wall, with Diane Abbott and Rebecca Long-Bailey backing Lansman. An ominous campaign to install Corbyn ally Laura Pidcock as a new deputy leader was also unleashed. With Watson now staying in post until December 12, he’s already ensured one big leadership election immediately after the election.

His surprise move, which had the dubious honour of distracting from Boris Johnson’s election launch, meant that Wednesday was bookended by two big resignations. When Welsh secretary Alun Cairns quit amid claims of lying about a rape trial, it was not exactly the perfect overture for the PM’s big speech on the steps of No.10.

Johnson looked typically unkempt for his big announcement, his hair as messy as usual, his shirt unstuffed, as he proceeded to deliver what sounded more like an after dinner speech than an address to the nation. As ever, it was all carefully scripted to sound unscripted, particularly the line about him “wanting to chew my own tie in frustration” that parliament won’t pass his Brexit deal.

And that theme of a parliament blocking ‘the will of the people’ will be rammed home relentlessly over the next five weeks, as well as claims Corbyn’s cosying to Russia, some dog whistling on immigration and crime, plus big dollops of cash for ‘schools-n-hospitals’ (a phrase the Tories tried unsuccessfully to ridicule Tony Blair with).

In this evening’s rally in the Birmingham, Johnson’s key message was “Let’s make 2020 about the people of this country and not its politicians”. It was Trump-like in its dismissal of MPs as a vehicle for change, but never forget that Trump got elected by using precisely that kind of narrative. As Trump attacks Washington, so Johnson attacks Westminster (intriguingly, Corbyn today had  his own version of this, declaring “Westminster hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory recently”).

But it was obvious from the PM’s rally speech that he fears being out-Trumped by Nigel Farage most of all. The Brexit Party leader again said today Johnson’s deal is ‘just not Brexit’. He added he would not have a manifesto and instead have a ‘contract with the people’. “Let others call theirs manifestos, nobody will believe a word they say.”

Johnson has a habit of not naming Farage, but no one could miss his jibe at his rival when he said the Brexit Party “remind me a bit of candle-sellers at the dawn of the age of the electric light bulb..or the makers of typewriters on beholding their first laptop computer...they have a terrible sense that they are about to lose their market”. All very subtle, but a bit too clever by half compared to Farage’s full-on rhetoric? Party chairman James Cleverly raised the spectre of a no-deal Brexit again today, perhaps in a sign that the Brexit Party threat is all too real.

With a blocked nose and sore throat, Johnson sounded under the weather tonight. And if he catches a political cold in this winter election, it may well be down to Farage. The former UKIP leader is a rebel’s rebel, so far shrugging off all the criticism of him from Tory Brexiteers who themselves rebelled mercilessly against Theresa May. Johnson quit her cabinet to twice vote against her deal, but he’s finding that pragmatism and compromise can be tough sells to true be-Leavers.‌

Corbyn too was of course a serial rebel against his party, as Watson pointed out in that NEC meeting today. The Labour leader’s admirers will say he was a rebel with a clause (IV to be precise). He and his likeminded colleagues now have an unchallenged grip on their party that makes Blair looks like a woolly liberal.

And more broadly, this general election is now a contest between rebels of various stripes. Everyone wants to be the ‘change candidate’ and for once that hackneyed Blairite phrase is true: the status quo really isn’t an option.

Quote Of The Day

“I hope the horseradish plants I gave you thrive.”

Jeremy Corbyn wishes Tom Watson well on his political retirement

Wednesday Cheat Sheet

Boris Johnson formally told the Queen that the general election had started. 

Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns resigned after being accused of “brazenly lying” about his knowledge of an allegation that a Tory candidate had sabotaged a rape trial.

John Bercow has revealed he sees Brexit as the UK’s “biggest foreign policy mistake” in the post-war era. 

A senior police officer told candidates to walk in pairs and keep mobile phones charged in winter election safety guidance.

The trio of former MPs were axed as Labour candidates for the general election. Chris Williamson, Stephen Hepburn and Roger Godsiff were all dumped by the party’s ruling National Executive Committee. Williamson announced he would stand as an independent. Keith Vaz’s fate will be decided by a special NEC panel.

Nigel Farage said he had approved the design for 27 million leaflets to go out in the campaign. “We will be giving this country the facts on Boris’ EU treaty, Labour’s Brexit betrayal and providing a real clean break option for the voters.”

The Green Party launched their campaign with a call for £100bn a year to be spent on tackling the climate emergency.

What I’m Reading

Tom Watson’s Career Path Through Labour - Prospect Magazine

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