The civil war at the top of Labour has undermined efforts to present the party as an alternative government, deputy leader Tom Watson has said – as he labels a bid to oust him as deputy leader a failed ‘drive-by shooting’.
The plot to scrap Mr Watson’s position was spearheaded by Jon Lansman, the boss of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum group.
After an intervention by party leader Jeremy Corbyn – with whom Mr Watson has repeatedly clashed – his post will instead be the subject of a review.
Mr Watson, who was met by cheering supporters as he arrived at Brighton station for the Labour Party conference on Saturday afternoon, was scathing about Mr Lansman.
‘I think it says there are some people who don’t think clear-headedly, who risk us having a transformative government by playing sectarian games.
‘I put Jon Lansman in that category and I think it’s very sad because I think he has undermined himself and the members of his organisation, many of whom have been in touch with me today and said they were not consulted when he did that and they were very disappointed with him personally.
‘But that’s politics, I’ve been around a long time and I want us to reunite now.’
Labour party deputy leader Tom Watson (pictured) arrives for the Labour Party Conference at the Brighton Centre in East Sussex today
Tom Watson (pictured in Brighton today ahead of the Labour Party Conference) has described the attempt to remove him as deputy leader of the Labour party as a ‘drive-by shooting’
Mr Watson was the target of an ambush at the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) on Friday night, at which he was not present due to family commitments.
Although a surprise effort to abolish the post of deputy was ruled out of order by chair Wendy Nichols, those present voted by 17-10 in a bid to debate it anyway – just short of the two-thirds majority required under party rules.
But the motion was due to be debated on Saturday morning’s meeting of the NEC, just hours before the official start of a party conference supposed to be focused on preparing for a looming election.
After Mr Corbyn intervened with his call for a review of the deputy leadership position, the bid to abolish it was not put to a vote.
Watson admits that he had no prior warning of the motion and said he wasn’t given an opportunity to defend himself.
Speaking to the Sunday Mirror he said: ‘Jon Lansman’s botched coup has undermined not just me, but this whole conference, the Labour Party, and Jeremy.
‘I don’t think Momentum or any other delegates will thank Jon for miring the conference in factionalism.’
And Speaking with Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4 this morning, the Labour deputy said: ‘These kind of things happen in Venezuela, not in UK politics.’
He added that he was shocked by Lansman’s behaviour and branded it a ‘sectarian attack on the party’.
After an intervention by party leader Jeremy Corbyn (pictured at the Labour Party conference in Brighton today) – with whom Mr Watson has repeatedly clashed – his post will instead be the subject of a review
The plot to scrap Mr Watson’s position was spearheaded by Jon Lansman (pictured last year), the boss of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum group
The aborted coup against Mr Watson was condemned in the strongest terms by Labour MPs, including former leader Ed Miliband, and ex-premier Tony Blair.
Mr Corbyn refused to say when he first knew about the attempt to oust Mr Watson, which began at an NEC meeting on Friday night.
Nor would he say whether he had full confidence in his deputy, instead saying: ‘Tom Watson is the deputy leader of the party and I enjoy working with him.’
A source said: ‘Jeremy Corbyn proposed that the motion not go to a vote and instead that there be a review of the position of deputy leader and other positions in support of the leader.
‘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 NEC agreed to his proposal.’
Mr Corbyn told reporters: ‘The NEC agreed this morning that we are going to consult on the future of diversifying the deputy leadership position to reflect the diversity of our society.’
Mr Corbyn claimed there was a ‘happy and united mood’ at the NEC and the conference will be ‘totally united on defeating this Tory Government’.
Asked whether he believed Mr Corbyn knew about the plot, Mr Watson said: ‘I don’t know what Jeremy knew or didn’t know.’
But he added: ‘Both of us would want to reunite the conference after what has been, frankly, quite a ridiculous start to it and totally unnecessary.’
The divisions over Brexit were on display earlier this month when Watson said he supported pressing for a second referendum before an early national election. His argument put him at odds with Corbyn (pictured together last year)
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Watson said: ‘I was taken by surprise by it, because it wasn’t on the agenda of the meeting, there were no papers tabled.
‘There was no warning.
‘I got a text message in a Chinese restaurant in Manchester to say that they were abolishing me.
‘I can’t get to Brighton in time for the meeting this morning. So, I’ve asked for dialling facilities.
‘It was a complete surprise. It’s a straight sectarian attack on a broad church party.
‘What it shows is that this conference is supposed to be a platform for what could be a general election in six weeks.
‘It’s a straight sectarian attack on a broad church party.
‘And it’s moving us into a different kind of institution where pluralism isn’t tolerated.
‘Where factional observance has to be adhered to completely.
‘And it completely goes against the sort of traditions that the Labour Party has had for 100 years.’
He also claimed that his removal wasn’t in the interest of the party, the country or Corbyn.
Former leader Mr Miliband said those responsible for trying to oust Mr Watson had ‘taken leave of their senses’.
Other MPs were not so diplomatic, with Yvette Cooper describing the move as ‘completely mad’ and Ben Bradshaw branding it ‘totally f****** insane’.
After the decision not to proceed on Saturday, Mr Lansman said: ‘We need to make sure the deputy leader role is properly accountable to the membership while also unifying the party at conference.’
The aborted coup against Mr Watson was condemned in the strongest terms by Labour MPs, including former leader Ed Miliband, and ex-premier Tony Blair (pictured in London earlier this month)
Former prime minister Tony Blair said: ‘A decision to abolish the post of Deputy Leader would be undemocratic, damaging and politically dangerous.
‘To suggest it at this time shows a quite extraordinary level of destructive sectarianism.
‘The Labour Party has always contained different views within it and the deputy leader’s position has been one way of accommodating such views.
‘Getting rid of it would be a signal that such pluralism of views was coming to an end despite being cherished throughout Labour’s history.’
Labour shadow cabinet member Dawn Butler has said she was surprised at moves to try and abolish the position of deputy party leader.
Referring to moves to remove Tom Watson from the role, Ms Butler told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘I think it’s a good position to have an elected deputy leader.
‘I was quite surprised at the motion, if that is what you want to ask me.
‘it just came out of the blue for me.
‘I understand the frustration of the members. I understand that frustration.
‘I have my frustrations with Tom too. I haven’t seen him at a shadow cabinet meeting for a while.’
The moves to oust him were labelled ‘mad’ and ‘f***ing insane’ by Labour MPs.
Former leader Ed Miliband said those responsible had ‘taken leave of their senses’.
He said: ‘The move to abolish the deputy leader post without warning or debate is undemocratic, wrong and should not happen.
‘Those who came up with the idea for the eve of Labour conference have taken leave of their senses.’
Ex-minister Yvette Cooper tweeted: ‘This is completely mad and incredibly destructive. Country faces serious challenges & General Election could be imminent. @UKLabour conference shd be about country & about pulling together. Instead we get this.’
Former Cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw said the attempt to ‘purge’ Mr Watson was ‘totally f***ing insane’.
Tottenham MP David Lammy said: ‘Tribal infighting in the middle of a Boris Johnson-inspired national emergency makes me want to weep.
‘My constituents and millions of others across the country desperately need the Labour party united right now. The Tories, not Tom Watson, are our opponents. Let’s fight them.’
The latest Ipsos MORI survey found that just 16 per cent are satisfied with Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, compared to 76 per cent who are dissatisfied – giving a net rating of minus 60
A source close to Mr Watson told PA the situation was ‘completely outrageous’.
A party spokesman was not immediately able to comment. Watson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Corbyn will face pressure from delegates at the conference, which begins on Saturday in the English seaside town of Brighton, to shift towards openly backing remaining in the European Union.
Britain’s 2016 EU referendum has split not only British towns and villages but also parliament, with both Conservative and Labour leaders struggling to keep their parties united.
Labour also faces a split on Brexit policy after a draft NEC statement presented by Mr Corbyn suggested the party should go into a general election without specifying whether it would support remaining in the EU at a promised second referendum.
The party would get the issue ‘sorted one way or another’ with a referendum within six months of Labour coming to power.
A decision on how to campaign in that referendum – either for a Labour-negotiated deal with Brussels or to stay in the European Union – would not be taken until a special conference after the general election.
The NEC will discuss the motion again on Sunday and pro-EU activists fear it could be a way of stopping debate on calls by members for the party to back Remain now.
Shadow Treasury minister Clive Lewis said: ‘This move is just plain wrong. How can this be defended?’
The divisions over Brexit were on display earlier this month when Watson said he supported pressing for a second referendum before an early national election.
His argument put him at odds with Corbyn, who says Labour would offer the people a second referendum on a credible option to leave against remaining in the EU, but only after an election.
Labour’s NEC is to consider abolishing the post of deputy party leader on Saturday after a bid to get rid of the post failed at a meeting on Friday.
The new comes as Jeremy Corbyn was last night revealed to be the most unpopular Opposition leader ever, according to a new poll.
The veteran left-winger’s net rating of minus 60 is below that of his hero Michael Foot who led Labour to disaster in the early 1980s and whose hard-left 1983 general election manifesto was described as the ‘longest suicide note in history’.
The latest Ipsos MORI survey found that just 16 per cent of voters are satisfied with Mr Corbyn’s performance, compared to 76 per cent who are dissatisfied – giving him a net rating of minus 60.
Labour’s annual gathering kicks off in Brighton this weekend, with Mr Corbyn under intense pressure to shift position on Brexit.
He has already bowed to demands from senior figures including Keir Starmer, John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry for the party’s next manifesto to promise a second referendum on any deal with the EU.
But Mr Corbyn has so far resisted saying he would campaign for Remain in that national vote.