Inside Out: My Story of Betrayal and Cowardice at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Watt with Isabel Oakeshott
The Sunday Times review by Rod Liddle
Peter Watt was the general secretary of the Labour party — an important post, previously held by the likes of Ramsay McDonald, Arthur Henderson and so on — for the best part of two years, until he was coerced in November 2007 into resigning over financial irregularities regarding Labour party donors. He has now written a very readable book designed to be as damaging to the party to which he owed his allegiance as it is possible to imagine, and especially so for the prime minister, Gordon Brown, who comes across — as he usually does on these occasions — as a psychologically damaged, sulking bully without a policy to his name. And at one point even as “bonkers”.
Watt has delivered himself of this stream of self-serving and vindictive bile because he believes he was hard done by when his Labour party career came to an end. My guess, reading between the lines, is that he was only a little hard done by, although, as a nurse from Dorset who rose without trace within 10 years to the most senior post in the Labour party, he may also have been over promoted in the first place. He would have us believe that he took the bullet and resigned for the good of the party — but the obvious question if that is so, then, is why this, now? And the answer is because the real or imagined iniquities he has suffered far outweigh any loyalty he might have to those he has left behind, even those few he quite liked. That’s the way it is right now, though, with this rapidly decomposing corpse of an administration.
Watt, a Blairite through convenience if not conviction, dishes it out from page one and his particular target is Brown. The prime minister emerges as a man incapable of taking a decision, especially if it is a big decision. Even more damningly, Watt suggests on several occasions that Brown did not have a political thought in his head. Perhaps one reason why there was not a general election in autumn 2007 is because Brown had no idea what he would put in the manifesto: “Everyone around him thought that there was some big plan sitting in a bottom drawer somewhere, just ready to be pulled out when the moment came. In fact, there was nothing,” says Watt. The prime minister was also startlingly inept at personal relations and Watt quotes Douglas Alexander — international development secretary, and nominally a Brownite — as saying that he and his colleagues had been working for this man night and day for 10 years, but that they really didn’t like him. Invited to meet and greet party workers, Brown would circle the room with a glassy stare and spooky rictus grin, often asking the same questions of the same people, in the manner of an aged monarch with Alzheimer’s.
Watt relates the tale of a ghastly dinner party at No 10 that he attended with his wife. Before the guests were seated, Brown was called away to the phone. When he returned the guests had sat around the table and Brown said furiously: “I didn’t sit you all down!” Watt takes up the tale: “Then he swivelled in his chair, so that he almost had his back to everybody and leaned his head on his arm. 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. As Sarah had also disappeared by then we all quite literally had to show ourselves out. ‘He’s bonkers,’ Vilma [Watt’s wife] whispered, as we trooped out.”
Prior to occupying No 10, Brown is revealed as a shadowy and divisive presence, commandeering his own sums of money from Labour party funds for private polling and what have you, wreathed in suspicion and bitterness, trusting nobody.
Mind you, not many people come out of this book terribly well — except, in common with almost all of these rat-on-your-party memoirs we’ve seen in the past couple of years, John Prescott, whom everybody seems to like. Prescott emerges as humane and principled and kindly towards party workers. However, Watt cannot abide Harriet Harman and her constant “dog whistling to the left”, and has even less time for her husband, Jack Dromey, considering him duplicitous and self-indulgent. The national executive committee of the party was, as a whole, an annoying and disruptive influence. But then an awful lot of this book consists of Watt bemoaning the thoughtlessness of others for doing stuff that made his job more onerous. The most telling sentence of Inside Out comes on page 125: “Dad became terminally ill at what was already a hugely difficult time for me.”
Watt left his post a year or so ago when it seemed that he might face criminal charges for having allowed a wealthy donor to funnel funds to the party through a number of third parties. Undoubtedly it was a horrible, frightening time for the young man and he did not receive much in the way of support. But it was nonetheless his responsibility, in the end, a notion that does not seem to have occurred to him.
Inside Out by Peter Watt with Isabel Oakeshott
Biteback £16.99 pp210