Thornberry v Watson: it’s not just business, it’s personal – a 12yr feud

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Social media is abuzz with the rumour, reported earlier today by the SKWAWKBOX, that Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry may challenge the disgraced Tom Watson for the Labour Deputy-Leadership, while BBC and other journalists have been contacting current and former Labour MPs urgently asking for comment. Support for a Thornberry challenge has been overwhelming, with this tweet typical of thousands of Twitter and Facebook messages calling for the move and the freeing of Labour to fight unhindered that it would represent:

What many might not realise – and which would increase the enthusiasm of most if they knew – is that Ms Thornberry and Watson have a long and acrimonious history that would render the contest highly personal.

And which might leave Watson isolated even in the PLP, apart from a few of the least likeable right-wing diehards.

The acrimony dates back to 2005, when then-PM Tony Blair was pushing legislation to extend the maximum period of detention without charge to 90 days. Ms Thornberry was resolutely against the move and she tells of a clash with Watson in her own words:


Remember that ‘traitor’ remark, because we’ll be coming back to it shortly.

There was further contention between the two around the ‘white van’ controversy and againĀ in 2016, when Watson was alleged to have rubbished Thornberry’s appointment as Shadow Defence Secretary in place of MariaĀ Eagle. Kevan Jones, a junior Shadow Defence Minister and another entrenched opponent of Jeremy Corbyn, resigned over the reshuffle and said:

We have got to be credible on defence in the country and I think appointing Emily is a mistake. So did Tom Watson.

Watson denied Jones’ claim, but in the context of his history with Thornberry, many doubted his denial:


Thornberry, for her part, strongly criticised Watson’s plotting last August and his ‘return to New Labour’ Conference speech last September – and just last night spoke on Newsnight against his behaviour yesterday.

A senior Labour source told the SKWAWKBOX this evening:

It would be no exaggeration to say that they hate each other.


And now, as promised, back to the inception of the feud between the two – Watson’s growled ‘traitor‘ in the lobby in 2005.

Tom Watson’s epithet to Ms Thornberry for ‘betraying’ then-PM Tony Blair is ironic in the extreme, as his own ‘betrayal’ of Blair is precisely what renders his situation so precarious now.

In 2006, Watson was a junior defence Minister in the Blair government, but he resigned and called on Blair to step down – a move that Blair supporters considered an act of deep treachery that hastened Blair’s departure from office and the ‘disastrous’ accession of Gordon Brown.

As a result, the core of Watson’s parliamentary support consists of ‘old right’ MPs such as Michael Dugher, Ian Austin and John Spellar, who infamously described ‘member of Momentum’ as an insult during an on-air tantrum on the BBC.

Watson’s supporters are hardly household names or winsome personalities and their abrasive, frankly rude manner is not going to win friends among MPs or Labour members.

All of which may mean that Watson’s isolation on Monday, when the Shadow Cabinet almost unanimously deserted him, turns out to be long-term rather than a one-off.

If Ms Thornberry confirms her intention to stand against him, she will do it with the intention of inflicting a fatal defeat on an old antagonist – and, in the circumstances, it may well be that she will face no greatĀ struggle to gather the supporting nominations she needsĀ under Labour rules in order to trigger the contest.

If so, then given the level of support for her candidacy evident among members today, it’s even possibleĀ that the complete humiliation he would face might influence Watson to step aside rather than make official the extent of the contempt in which he is now held by the vast majority of the membership.

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  1. I’d be very surprised if 35 MP’s want to sign up to pointless deputy leadership election similar to Benn/Healy back in the early 80’s. Completely irrelevant to the wider public and Labour voters. Could be damaging and make Labour look more concerned about themselves than the country.

    1. Again it is not what MPs want it is what the membership wants and by the looks of social media, they want rid of Tom Watson, like yesterday! It is not a pointless election either, Tom Watson has been causing trouble and undermining Corbyn from day one, without him in a position of power a kingpin of the daft and nasty brigade will be removed and maybe, just maybe Labour will be able to settle down and accept Jeremy and fight the Tories not each other. Watson has made his position untenable and he has obviously lost the confidence of the party membership – time for hm to go.

    2. It’s far more damaging to have Watson as Deputy Leader and on the NEC, doing the exact opposite to his promise to support Jeremy Corbyn 100% when he was first elected.

      1. No doubt if replaced Watson will be on Newsnight and At more than the whole Shadow Cabinet put together. But he is more easily dismissed as an irrelevant troublemaker.

  2. Very relevant to the country! If Thornberry replaced Watson a lot of the in-fighting inside Labour would grind to a halt, and the NEC would then have a pro-Corbyn majority, which is what the membership all want. At the moment, with the split being pretty much equal on both sides (approx 50/50 in the NEC; Leadership + membership v. the PLP) the country just can’t relate to us.

  3. As a member of the ‘procedures committee’ set up to oversee the leadership election 2016, tom watson put forward a list of proscribed words that were then used retrospectively to suspend, exclude and even expel Labour Party members and remove their right to vote in the leadership election. That list of words included the word ‘traitor’.
    So fair’s fair, shouldn’t the party now retrospectively look back at use of such a proscribed word and act accordingly?
    People who live in glasshouses really should not throw stones. Some seem to think it’s okay to throw stone storms. It’s not. Or rather it is if you are creating a glass ceiling for others from the safe thrones in la la land.

  4. Lets hope Watson goes soon. It always seems to be the midlands, Spencerism in the general strike, Terry Duffy AUEW, UDM in the miners strike, Coyne for Unite et al. If he has any honour at all he should go and go now!

  5. Blimey, irony ain’t dead is it? Tom Watson calls Ms Thornberry a “traitor?” So what did he call himself when he (and Chris Bryant) led a coup to oust Tony Blair? Was that Watson’s supportive action for Mr Blair? You couldn’t make up this stuff for a Brian Rix Farce! Watson up in arms about supposed anti-semitism whilst simultaneously taking money from Max – Son of Fascist leader Oswald Mosley – who lost his Formula 1 Supremo job for being caught on camera at his own Nazi themed SM orgy. Where he allegedly (along with others) acted out what Nazis did to Jews during WW2.

    How does Mr Watson get away with this stuff? Unbelievable.

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