Tom Watson: Bid to oust Corbyn critic as Labour deputy leader fails after backlash splits party

Rob Merrick
Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn is congratulated by deputy leader Tom Watson after he addresses a post-Budget rally at the Bethel Convention Centre, West Bromwich, in 2017: Aaron Chown/PA Archive/PA Images

Tom Watson has won his battle to stay on as Labour’s deputy leader, as party leftwingers were forced to abandon an attempt to topple him.

The move to scrap the post altogether was dropped after Jeremy Corbyn intervened to propose a “review” instead – kicking the controversy into the long grass.

The climbdown came after leading trade unions joined former Labour leaders in condemning the shock putsch, led by Jon Lansman, the Momentum founder and Corbyn ally.

Mr Watson himself attacked it as a “drive-by shooting” and like something that “happens in Venezuela” – revealing he had been given no prior warning.

Mr Corbyn has refused to comment publicly on the controversy, but a party source said he had proposed a “review of the position of deputy leader” instead, at today’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting.

“This will consider how democratic accountability can be strengthened to give members a greater say, expanding the number of elected positions, and how diverse representation can be further improved,” the source said, adding: “The NEC agreed to his proposal.”

Nevertheless, the controversy has meant the annual conference has opened in Brighton with Labour again in a state of civil war, even before rows over Brexit policy begin.

One source told ITN News that the plot to bring down Mr Watson had been “cooked up” without Mr Corbyn’s knowledge by Mr Lansman and Karie Murphy, his chief of staff.

But few in the party will believe that, given the Labour leader’s refusal so speak out publicly in Mr Watson’s support and the growing divisions between the pair.

On Friday evening, Mr Lansman’s initial attempt to scrap the deputy leader’s post failed at an NEC meeting, but he was due to have a second attempt on Saturday morning.

If he had received the ruling body’s backing, the issue would have been put to Labour members in a conference vote in Brighton early next week.

Elected to the position in 2015, Mr Watson’s relations with his leader deteriorated over his attacks on antisemitism in the party and his call for a new Brexit referendum before a general election.

Unison union boss Dave Prentis criticised the attempt to topple him, tweeting: “Our sole focus at Labour conference this week should be on taking the fight to Boris Johnson.

Tim Roache, the GMB union general secretary, said: “We are weeks from a Gen Election and have a fantastic manifesto in the making and nothing must detract from that.

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Shop stewards for Labour backbenchers said: “Today's outrageous proposals to remove the position of deputy leader of the Labour party are counterproductive, entirely factional and undermine the unity that the party have been striving for.”

And Tony Blair attacked an “undemocratic, damaging and politically dangerous” move that revealed “a quite extraordinary level of destructive sectarianism”.

Mr Lansman himself struck a contrite note on Twitter, saying: “I welcome & fully support Jeremy's proposal to review Tom Watson's position.

“We need to make sure the deputy leader role is properly accountable to the membership while also unifying the party at conference. In my view, this review is absolutely the best way of doing that.”

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