Now in his stunning memoirs entitled Inside Out Watt provides the ultimate insider expose’: a no holds-barred account of the spectacular decline of the most effective party political machine of modern times.
“By the time I had become General Secretary of the Labour Party we were two parties in terms of personality, character and even polling.”
Peter Watt, whilst his wife Vilma is busily organising their children in the background, is remarkably candid about the two Labour Prime Ministers he served as he discusses over the telephone life at the heart of New Labour. Watt would be a daily visitor to Number 10 Downing Street where he would give party political advice to this country’s leadership. In his tenure as General Secretary Watt presided over the much anticipated transition between Blair and Brown and he organised the infamous 2007 ‘election that never was’. Watt was also the man who helped saved the Labour Party from financial oblivion as it was just moments away from being declared bankrupt. Watt reflects that,
“The relationship between Tony and Gordon was difficult and dysfunctional but it was also immensely beneficial for this country.”
Watt’s term as General Secretary was to end with ‘Donorgate’ a political scandal that saw Watt faced with the threat of imprisonment as the man he had once served so loyally, Gordon Brown, branded him a criminal.
CARDIFF EAST: What were Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prime Minister Gordon Brown like as men? How would you describe them from your relationships with both?
PETER WATT: They were very different – Tony was very personable and warm and Gordon was more difficult to get to know. Both were driven by a sense of social justice and improving people’s lives, of doing the right thing. I got on well with both of them although I knew Tony better and of course ultimately my relationship with Gordon ended in acrimony. Tony was a better leader and that made him a better Prime Minister. People often say that Tony didn’t understand the Party and Gordon did – I’m not sure that was actually true.
In his book Inside Out Watt offers a key account of the introverted Prime Minister Brown in the extroverted world of politics. He recalls a moment when the Prime Minister threw a tantrum at a dinner party for Amercian Democrat politicans after guests sat down without his permission. “For the rest of the meal he was monosyllabic, sulking because he had lost control of the seating plan. “The plates had not even been cleared when quite suddenly, without saying anything, he just got up and left.”
CARDIFF EAST: In your book you quote Douglas Alexander, a close aide of Brown as saying; “The truth is, Peter, we have spent ten years working with this guy, and we don’t actually like him. We have always thought that the longer the British public had to get to know him, the less they’d like him as well…” Why was Brown able to become PM unchallenged when his actions, over so many years, were seen as destructive by so many Labour figures?
PETER WATT: A very good question, I know that Douglas was cross with me for quoting him in particular, and of course I understand why. There are many people, myself included, who didn’t feel that Gordon would make a good Leader. I thank that we all succumbed
to a collective sense of head-burying hoping that it would all come right in the end. It had become an unchallengeable truth that Gordon would succeed Tony, and Gordon ensured that this belief was ruthlessly enforced. In the end those who could have stopped him didn’t and they will have to explain why themselves. I haven’t heard a convincing explanation yet.
CARDIFF EAST: Peter Mandelson, in his book ‘The Third Man’ recounts seeing an e-mail exchange before the 2006 Labour Party Conference where there was a dispute between the Blair and Brown camps over the strapline for the conference literature – “The Treasury had objected to the word ‘future’ in the slogan…’GB hates “future””, Peter Watt had messaged him. Ben had replied: “I’m aware of that!’ When did the TB and GB relationship become dysfunctional in your view and a hinderance to good governance?
PETER WATT: I’m not sure when it became dysfunctional. To be honest, I think that we stopped seeing it as dysfunctional as it was just the way things were, it had bizarrely become the norm. Of course with hindsight it hindered good governance on occasions but generally speaking I think that the relationship between them was an incredibly creative one and one that ultimately lead to the longest and most successful period in our Parties history.
CARDIFF EAST: Your book records your campaign organisation role in the 2001 General Election. You ensured that Cabinet Ministers were even kept away from ordinary members of the public even at service stations where you called on Labour activists to meet
ministers for PR purposes. How can politicians avoid the media claim that their campaigns are dull whilst avoiding Gillian Duffy incidents?
PETER WATT: Politicians will always say that they want to meet real people but if they were honest they would rather not do so in the full glare of the media! Well, that’s not quite true, there will be times when being seen to be verbally assaulted is seen as a good thing as that demonstrates that they are prepared to listen! I am of course being slightly ‘tongue in cheek’ but is it really surprising that Parties try and get the best out of media visits and so on? In a 24 hour media environment sometimes this means that boring is good because it is safe. It is though a balance and a dilemma for them. The really tragic thing about the Gillian Duffy moment was that it showed that politicians can take on difficult arguments and that people appreciate this. But then of course it also showed insincerity as it appeared to all be an act.
Peter Watt’s memoirs INSIDE OUT can be purchased at Amazon here.
NEXT WEEK PART 2: Peter Watt reveals what made him join the Labour Party and gives fresh insights into life behind the closed door of Number 10 Downing Street during the Labour years.