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 again in 2016, when Watson was alleged to have rubbished Thornberry’s appointment as Shadow Defence Secretary in place of Maria 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 great struggle to gather the supporting nominations she needs 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 possible 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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