The scourge of the phone hacker now has a new crusade: to get to the bottom of the claims of a Westminster HOMOpaedo ring. So what turned him into a private investigator? And why can’t he back Ed Miliband with the same enthusiasm?
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Had Tom Watson been told 10 years ago that senior members of the establishment used to systematically abuse young boys in the 1980s, and that a powerful elite covered up their crimes, he wouldn’t have believed it for a minute.
“Oh no, I would have dismissed it. I was a very believing, small-‘c’ conservative individual who had trust in a lot of public institutions, and believed everything I was told by politicians.” Then came the phone-hacking scandal, however, in which Watson played a chief investigative role. “I lost faith in a lot of individuals, having come through that, and I’m a much more sceptical person at the end of it.” But even the bleakest cynic would have been staggered by the latest allegations to emerge last week about sex abuse in Westminster.
A middle-aged man known as “Nick”, who says he was repeatedly abused and raped by a network of VIPs and politicians, has told the police that he witnessed the murder of three other victims – one boy strangled by a Tory MP during an orgy, another killed in the presence of a Conservative minister, and a third deliberately run over by a car. Watson doesn’t yet know whether or not this is true. “But there is no doubt in my mind that sexual abuse by powerful figures took place.” Did they include politicians? “There is no doubt in my mind that at least one politician abused kids.” And there was a cover-up? “Well … ” He hesitates for a moment. “Something went on.”
The Labour MP is almost unrecognisable these days from the traditional party worker and trade unionist who was elected in 2001 with a reputation as an old-school fixer. In fact, when we meet this week, he no longer seems much like an MP at all, but more like the sort of private investigator you’ve seen in a million mid-budget TV shows: the deceptively shambolic maverick with an ex-wife for a private life, who looks like Robbie Coltrane but turns out to be a crime-fighting genius. And funnily enough, that’s not too far wide of the mark.
Two years ago Watson was lying on his sofa one Friday night, “flat out, knackered,” when an email arrived from a former child protection officer called Peter McKelvie, claiming that evidence of a powerful paedophile ring had been covered up in 1992. “He said he’d written to MPs in the 90s and not had responses, and had given up on politicians a long time ago. ‘But you’re that guy who interviewed Murdoch, we think you might be able to help us.’ It was,” Watson admits with a grin, “a very flattering and enticing email. But there was a parallel with the hacking inquiry that was just uncanny.”
Just as Metropolitan police officers had ignored Glenn Mulcaire’s incriminating notebooks about hacking, McKelvie told Watson that the police had discovered letters implicating powerful individuals in a paedophile network – and then abruptly, inexplicably, terminated all further investigation. Watson knows his critics tend to regard him as a credulous conspiracy theorist, and concedes that that the hacking scandal may have left him unduly susceptible to unthinkable allegations. “But I just believed him. I believed in him, and I believed what he told me.” And so, within a week of meeting McKelvie, Watson went public with the allegations in parliament.
“I just thought, it worked last time with the Met. If I surface this allegation publicly in the format of PMQs, then if the Met have got the evidence they’ll have to take a look at it again.”
It worked. The police suddenly found the letters. One surviving correspondent – Charles Napier, an English teacher and “lifelong paedophile”, former treasurer of the Paedophile Information Exchange, and half brother of the Tory MP John Whittingdale – pleaded guilty last week to 28 charges of indecent assault against boys, and is now in prison.
Napier himself had no connection to any Westminster paedophile ring. Until I bring up the fraternal relationship to Whittingdale, Watson doesn’t even mention it, for fear that the quite coincidental link could be misinterpreted. And the specific document McKelvie told Watson he had seen back in 1992, implicating a senior associate of the government, was now missing from the boxes of letters produced by the police. Nevertheless, ever since putting his parliamentary question, Watson has been overwhelmed by an “avalanche” of allegations against much more powerful men from “survivors who are very, very damaged and angry and upset”, had previously gone to the police and been disbelieved, and now saw him as a new gateway to justice.
“A slightly reluctant gateway,” he confesses. A “naturally disorganised person”, equipped with neither the skills nor the resources to process the deluge of allegations, at times Watson wondered what he had got himself into.
Does he believe what the accusers tell him? He looks awkward. “I’m not here to investigate, or to judge.” He has met the man known as Nick, but “it was a very, very traumatic and difficult conversation, as you would imagine. He only told me about one murder. He spoke very slowly, very intermittently, and I didn’t need to hear any more.” Did Watson trust the account? He sighs uneasily. “These allegations, they’re so enormous that you need critical faculties. What I’m certain of is that he’s not delusional. He is either telling the truth, or he’s made up a meticulous and elaborate story. It’s not for me to judge. What I was hoping to do was build a relationship with him and get him back into the system, so he could make his allegations to the police. And to make sure that he had a degree of protection,” he adds darkly. “With all the things that come from making these sort of allegations.”
What does he mean? “Well, I think he would certainly need his privacy protected. And I think he would need to be dealt with very sensitively by the police. I say that because there had been a previous case of an allegation of rape by a woman who alleged that a former minister raped her when she was a teenager. And she was very upset about one particular interview with the police, where it appeared to her, and to me when she explained what happened, that they had not followed the correct procedures. ‘You didn’t actually say no’ was one of the lines she was upset about.”
Is he talking about the woman who accused Leon Brittan of raping her when she was 19? “Yes.” She came to Watson after the police dismissed her allegation. “She felt very, very bruised and very, very upset. Very, very, very upset.” Does he share her distress? “Yes, I do, I do.”
Watson gets a bit jumpy when I ask if he knows the name of the senior Downing Street aide referred to in his original question to David Cameron. “Erm … he, he, he … er, yes.” Did he recognise the name? “Erm, yes. But it would be wrong of me to – honestly, please, don’t, it would be very wrong of me to give any context to who it might be. We definitely don’t want to go down the Lord McAlpine road.” The names of more than 10 current and former politicians have also been passed to the police, and lots of Watson’s colleagues badger him to whisper the identities – though not all. “I think some are sniffy about what I’m doing, and say it’s grandstanding. But,” he shrugs, “that’s politics.”
Watson can’t rule out the possibility that the Westminster paedophile ring is a wild invention containing not a shred of truth. I ask what odds he would give on this. “You’re pushing me beyond how far I want to go. But in one particular case of one person, there have been multiple allegations from unrelated people, some more credible than others, about severe cases of abuse. And in my mind I’m pretty certain that that person has broken the law and abused kids. But it doesn’t matter what I think, it’s what the police uncover.”
If the inquiries all conclude that that even the darkest allegations are true, what does he think that will do to relations between the public and the political class? “Well, there will obviously be absolute fury. And rightly so.”
Watson doesn’t even try to deny that public esteem for politicians has already sunk to dangerously low levels. He says Emily Thornberry’s calamitous tweet betrayed “arrogant contempt”, but that all three parties have become exclusive clubs for privileged elites. When I ask how the average voter could conceivably identify with a Hampstead intellectual and policy wonk like Ed Miliband, he admits: “Ermmm … well, a lot of them don’t. Which is Labour’s challenge.”
Watson resigned as Miliband’s campaign co-ordinator in 2013, due to a controversy over candidate selection in Falkirk. “So I’m not in the business of giving advice to Ed these days. But I’m sure he knows that his challenge is to go and face his doubters.” When we met last summer, Watson assured me that Miliband was only polling badly because voters hadn’t got to know him yet, but his proposed remedy – show them more Ed – doesn’t appear to have worked. In June, Watson urged his leader’s press team to “lift its game or move on”, but neither has happened, has it? “It certainly doesn’t look like it, no.”
Last week Michael Gove described Cameron as “the standout politician of our time”. Is that how Watson would describe Miliband? After an uneasy pause: “I would describe him as a potentially great Labour prime minister.” I ask the question again. “I tell you what I think. I think he’d be a much better PM than leader of the opposition. There’s some things you have to do as leader of the opposition –the retail bit, all the media stuff and campaigning – that are a totally different requirement to running a No 10 operation and taking the big decisions.” So Miliband is not very good at leading the opposition, but would be good at running the country? “Yeah. Like Churchill and Attlee. Who were both lousy politicians and would be condemned in every tabloid newspaper were they in politics today. But I still believe in Ed, and have faith in him to be an absolutely standout Labour PM.”
The shadow cabinet, however, is another matter. In the final six months of a fixed-term parliament, Watson argues heatedly: “There is nothing substantial going to come out legislatively. So positioning and speeches in Westminster are not going to cut it. We’ve got to do it totally differently. What should the shadow cabinet be doing? Getting out into the country and explaining Labour’s message! We know there are people out there who like the policies of Labour, but are slightly concerned about whether the team at the top are going to deliver it. Get out there and convince them! Get into the town halls, get on soap boxes, get out there and explain what Labour stands for!”
He cannot understand why the shadow cabinet seems so meekly silent, 160 days away from the election. “I’m very frustrated because I just want them to be fired up and get out there, because it’s a compelling offer we’ve got. So explain it! If I’m sounding frustrated it’s because I want us to win. And I want the shadow cabinet to want to win as well. I want it to be fired up and get out there, because there are people out there that need us!”
He checks himself, and grins. “Sorry, I’ve went off into a bit of a rant there.” He does sound, I agree, highly frustrated. Watson nods ruefully. “Yep. I’m turning into a middle-aged, curmudgeonly, overweight bloke.”