Watson dances the night away as Labour implodes

Deputy leader was \'happy\' at Glastonbury and oblivious to civil war engulfing his party.

Published: 27th June 2016 10:06 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th June 2016 10:06 AM   |  A+A-

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A rainbow arcs above the audience as Tame Impala performs on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, in Pilton, England. (AP)

LONDON: In the Heds Party tent at the Glastonbury Festival, Labour's deputy leader, Tom Watson, was having a grand old time.

It was 4am yesterday (Sunday) morning, and after watching Adele and Tom Robinson, Mr Watson had headed to the silent disco, where he danced the night away with a pair of headphones clamped to his ears.

Back in London the Labour party was four hours into a process of implosion, triggered at midnight by Jeremy Corbyn's sacking of Hilary Benn, the man leading a coup to unseat him. A slew of shadow cabinet resignations would soon follow.

Mr Watson, it seemed, was utterly oblivious. With a choice of DJ Ezy Rider and DJ Conrad to choose from in his headphones, he posted a selfie to his followers on the social media site Snapchat to show just how much fun he was having, together with a smiley face emoji.

He had unwittingly created the perfect metaphor for what was happening to the Labour leadership, as Mr Corbyn resolutely ignored demands for his resignation like a man standing in a dark room with his fingers in his ears. Crisis? What crisis?

The plot to oust Mr Corbyn had got under way at Hilary Benn's home on Saturday. Already angry at Mr Corbyn's failure to persuade Labour supporters to vote Remain in last Thursday's referendum, Mr Benn was appalled as he watched his leader make a speech at the Pride festival in London which he claimed free movement of people would continue despite the vote for Brexit.

Labour MPs accused him of a "complete lack of understanding" of immigration and some said his position had become "untenable".

"If we go into a snap election this year with him as leader we will be toast," said one Labour MP. According to a leaked internal party document, 29 per cent of people who voted Labour at the last general election would vote for another party if a poll was held now.

Mr Corbyn was even heckled at Pride, when Labour activist Tom Mauchline shouted "It's your fault Jeremy?... stop using the gay movement as a shield to protect your weak leadership." Mr Corbyn replied: "I did all I could." Mr Benn decided enough was enough, and began phoning his colleagues to find out how much support he would have if he led a coup. An overwhelming majority of the shadow cabinet reportedly agreed that Mr Corbyn should go.

Emboldened, Mr Benn set up a private contact group using the Whatsapp platform so that he and his conspirators could keep in touch with each other during the day.

At midnight Mr Corbyn saw an early edition of the Left-wing Observer newspaper, with the headline: "Hilary Benn seeks shadow cabinet backing in revolt to depose Corbyn." The leader was furious. He phoned Mr Benn to tell him he was fired as shadow foreign secretary.

At 1.13am Kevin Slocombe, from Mr Corbyn's press team, texted journalists to say "call me if you're up" so they could be briefed on what was going on. The official Labour line was that: "Jeremy has sacked him on the grounds that he has lost confidence in him." Mr Benn's version was that: "In a phone call to Jeremy I told him I had lost confidence in his ability to lead the party and he dismissed me."

The Observer also contained an article written by Labour's Tristram Hunt, saying that "our experiment with Corbynism has to end?... the shadow cabinet needs to act".

By 3am Roberta Blackman-Woods, the shadow housing minister, had spoken about Mr Benn's sacking, calling it "sad news" and adding: "I cannot understand how Jeremy thinks it will help his worsening position with the Parliamentary Labour Party." The Labour MP Wes Streeting said: "Lots of good people chose to serve in the shadow cabinet to keep the show on the road. There are no longer good reasons for good people to stay." Ben Bradshaw urged his Labour colleagues in the shadow cabinet to "act now to save the Party and for the sake of the country. Otherwise we will never be forgiven." Revolution was clearly in the air.

Back in Glastonbury, Tom Watson was Snapchatting regular updates from the Festival. There was Tom Robinson on the Left Field stage, Adele on the Pyramid Stage, a video of himself singing along to Paul Simon's You Can Call Me Al and a blurred picture with the word "happy" scrawled across it.

During the day he had posted pictures of various craft beers and a picture of himself enjoying a can of (ironically) Thatcher's Gold cider in the middle of a churned-up field. He had captioned the picture: "A barren wasteland of mud. This is not a metaphor." It soon would be though.

By 8am the calls for Mr Corbyn to go were growing ever louder. Ian Lucas, shadow business minister, wrote an open letter to the Labour leader, saying: "Your approach to the Referendum and its result has convinced me that you have no understanding of the issues that face us and can never present the credible Labour response that is essential at this crucial time. I have no confidence in your Leadership."

Mr Corbyn was unmoved. A source close to him said he would not be stepping down, as: "Jeremy is leader of the Labour Party, elected overwhelmingly by party members." The party's press office texted journalists to say: "There will be no resignation of a democratically elected leader."

But the turmoil was only just beginning. At 8.22am Heidi Alexander, the shadow health secretary, announced on Twitter that "with a heavy heart" she had resigned from the shadow cabinet. She also tweeted her resignation letter, in which she told Mr Corbyn that an effective opposition was desperately needed and "I do not believe you have the capacity to shape the answers our country is demanding".

Tom Watson was already being installed as one of the bookies' favourites to become the next Labour leader, not that he knew anything about it. Asleep in a tent 130 miles from London, he finally woke up at 9am, discovered what he had missed, and decided it might be an idea to head back to the capital, even if that did mean he would miss Sunday's headline act Coldplay.

He arrived at Castle Cary train station at 9.45am, where he learned that the next train to London was not for another hour and 40 minutes, giving him plenty of time to reflect on why he had ever decided to spend the most turbulent political weekend in recent history at a rock festival. He told a fellow passenger that he was going back to London to "find out what's going on".

Meanwhile, Dame Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey - who had tabled a motion for a no-confidence vote on Mr Corbyn to be debated tomorrow - wrote to Labour MPs warning that Labour was facing "political oblivion" if Mr Corbyn fought a general election.

Mr Corbyn had sacked Hilary Benn but could not silence him. Mr Benn went on the attack, telling the BBC's Andrew Marr that Mr Corbyn was "not a leader".

In the absence of Tom Watson, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, was deployed to defend Mr Corbyn, together with Corbynites Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry.

Mr McDonnell told the BBC: "Jeremy's not going anywhere?... he will replace them. There are other members willing to serve." His choice of words had the feel of a wartime general talking about volunteers coming forward to replace battlefield casualties, but this was a bloodbath entirely of Labour's own making.

By 11.15am, Gloria De Piero, the shadow minister for young people and voter registration, had quit. She had "lost faith in [Mr Corbyn's] leadership", as had many of her constituents, she said.

It was a bitter blow for Mr Watson in particular, whose communications chief James Robinson is married to Ms De Piero.

A Labour source confirmed that the resignations were being spread throughout the day and coordinated centrally to ensure they dominated the news all day and to cause maximum impact.

Mr Corbyn's supporters repeatedly fell back on his convincing leadership victory, which had given him a "mandate" to represent Labour voters.

John McTernan MP had an answer to that one. "He did not have any mandate to be utterly useless," he told BBC News.

Mr McDonnell was insisting that if there was a leadership contest, Mr Corbyn would simply stand again and win again. Perhaps, he suggested, those calling for Mr Corbyn's resignation had not had enough sleep since Thursday's referendum.

He also ruled out ever standing for the party leadership himself, saying that reports his allies were testing the waters to see how much support he would have were nothing to do with him.

But whatever he and others said in support of Mr Corbyn was being drowned out by the sheer noise of the political earthquake shaking the foundations of their party.

Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish secretary and Labour's only MP in Scotland, resigned at 11.40am. He was followed an hour later by Lilian Greenwood, the shadow transport secretary.

Labour MPs told The Daily Telegraph that they would set up a "party within a party" with the Parliamentary Labour Party electing its own leader and forming an alternative shadow cabinet if Mr Corbyn refused to go. There was even talk of them fighting a general election as an alternative Labour Party leadership.

The unions were having none of it. Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, said there was still "100 per cent backing for Jeremy" from his members, calling the attempted putsch "futile". Mick Cash, his opposite number at the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said forcing out Mr Corbyn would "weaken, not strengthen the Labour Party".

Still the resignations kept coming. At 1pm it was the turn of Lucy Powell, shadow education secretary, who told Mr Corbyn "your position is untenable?... you are unable to command the support of the shadow cabinet, the Parliamentary Labour Party and, most importantly, the country".

There was a rare piece of good news for Mr Corbyn five minutes later, when Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary and announced that he would not be taking part in a coup.

"At an uncertain time like this for our country, I cannot see how it makes sense for the Opposition to plunge itself into civil war," he said. But the desertions continued. At 1.14am Kerry McCarthy, the shadow environment secretary, became the sixth to resign, followed half an hour later by Seema Malhotra, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.

Ms Malhotra was perhaps closer to Mr Corbyn than any of the other plotters, and had even introduced him at the Pride festival the day before.

Moments later Mr Corbyn left his house in north London and made his way to a waiting car, refusing to talk to reporters.

He was on his way to a crisis meeting with loyal shadow cabinet members at Labour HQ to discuss who should fill the growing number of vacancies less than 24 hours before a new parliamentary session began.

He could not, however, finalise a new shadow cabinet until he knew how many empty chairs there would be, and the resignations were not over. Vernon Coaker, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, quit shortly before 5pm.

Within the hour Lord Falconer, the shadow justice secretary, became the 10th, and biggest, name to resign.

Tom Watson, finally back from Somerset, said he was "saddened" by the resignations but also "deeply disappointed" by Mr Benn's sacking.

He fell a long way short of a hearty endorsement for his leader.

"It's very clear to me that we are heading for an early general election and the Labour Party must be ready to form a government," he said.

"There's much work to do. I will be meeting Jeremy Corbyn tomorrow morning to discuss the way forward."

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