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Labour’s other leader

Tom Watson has built a power base. What does he want to do with it, asks Kevin Maguire

If there’s any truth in Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” then perhaps Sun Tzu’s The Art of War illuminates Tom Watson’s manoeuvrings.

Watson read the 6th century BC Chinese military strategist’s treatise before he was briefly appointed a junior defence minister in the final government of Tony Blair—a Labour leader he soon helped to bring down. Watson’s allies believe it also partly shaped his tactics in battles with Jeremy Corbyn’s praetorian guard and sometimes the Labour Caesar himself.

Retreating to the hills in the face of overwhelming left opposition after Corbyn’s 2016 second leadership victory and surprisingly strong showing in the 2017 general election, Labour’s deputy leader kept his powder dry. Now that deep divisions over Europe and the poisonous row over anti-Semitism have visibly weakened Corbyn, Watson has emerged to resume combat. In the aftermath of eight Labour MPs leaving the party to create the Independent Group (TIG), Watson released a heartfelt video on Facebook where he sympathised with those quitting, refusing to criticise them—strikingly saying their decision was “premature” rather than wrong— and even echoing some of their concerns.

Then he launched the Future Britain Group to rally MPs in the centre and on the right of the party—immediately gathering 130 Labour MPs to his cause. This triggered a frequently heard question in Westminster: “What is Tommy up to?”

The answer is surprising: pondering overtures to join a government of national unity. According to close confidants of Watson, pro-European Tories have approached him to inquire if he would be willing to serve. The idea sounds fanciful, requiring a political earthquake. Yet these are volatile times, turbulent and unpredictable.

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About Prospect Magazine

InProspect's May issue: Tom Clark explores how British politics has ended up in crisis and suggests that a proper constitution could have avoided the current chaos and may well be necessary now to avoid the same problems in the future. Elsewhere in the issue: Kevin Maguire profiles Labour deputy leader Tom Watson who says that “if needs must” he would join a government of national unity. Max Rashbrooke examines Jacinda Ardern’s government in New Zealand and the ways the country is being transformed, ultimately suggesting that it could be an example for Britain to follow. Also, Stefanie Marsh follows the work of a donor detective who is helping children conceived by anonymous sperm donation to find their biological parents and Francesca Wade shows how Virginia Woolf is inspiring a new generation of women writers.