Sunday, 10 January 2010

Watt's the point?

Top Tory blogger Iain Dale is cock-a-hoop - and in his own words, "self-satisfied" this morning - having published (through his aptly named 'biteback' press) and organised the Mail on Sunday serialisation of ex-Labour General Secretary Peter Watt's personal attack on his former colleagues.

Dale calculates that the news of the book will have reached seven million people: the MoS claims a readership of 5.3 million on its 2 million+ circulation, so many of whom will have been gripped by the stirring tale of fear and loathing on the National Executive Committee this morning.

I would venture the following observations, which draw loosely on having spent three years in book publishing, commissioning politics for Macmillan, in the late '90s.

1. Will Dale say what his initial print run is? I would be very surprised if it were over 2000 copies, and would guess it more likely to be less than half, or even a quarter, of that. (Pitch it low enough, and you could announce a sell-out and a reprint by next week!). I shall ask him.

2. I imagine the publisher and author would be in profit, though this will surely primarily depend on any largesse received from Mr Paul Dacre's chequebook rather than the great book-buying British public.

3. The main impact - the whole point - of such an exercise is the media and blogosphere political detonation. The book (co-authored by the Sunday Times' deputy political editor Isabel Oakeshott, making their non-serialisation of the book interesting) is simply a vehicle.

It is certainly the type of serialisation which makes buying the book pretty redundant for any but the most dedicated anorak.

If the tell-all memoir of Peter Watt would have not been an obvious candidate for the list of a mainstream publishing house, one might then observe the success of several key players from Britain's political right (particularly the Ashcroft-Montgomerie-Dale triumvirate) in realising the value of creating alternative media channels to make such interventions possible, through whatever combination of strategic funding and individual initiative is involved.

So one can hardly fairly criticise Iain Dale for any of this. It is good news for his publishing business, for his media profile and for his political prospects, since this will be seen in CCHQ as very helpful intervention from the aspiring candidate. (Dale suggests that he would be just as vigorous in promoting a book which damaged Cameron, Osborne or Boris; though one can note only that there may then be trade-offs, since his different interests would not be so happily aligned in that case).

But Labour voices will wonder at Watt's actions, and his choice of accomplices and outlets will raise further questions too. Watt was always out of his depth as General Secretary, as his astonishing profession of ignorance about the party funding laws in 2007 shows (though that perhaps reflects more on Labour's NEC and high command than it does on him).

Iain Dale's verdict at the time was that Watt had to be either "a liar or an incompetent fool".

Whatever Watt's motivation - ego, financial gain, personal revenge, or a botched attempt to participate a weekend late in a farcical coup would all seem to be among the possible contenders - very few in his own party will thank him for his final destructive contribution to the party's general election effort.



LibDem blogger James Graham has an incisive post asks "which side is Peter Watt's side of the story?", identifying some significant questions about his account.

Graham reads the extracts as implying that Watt takes no personal responsibility for failing to register the true donors; perhaps even continuing to believe that this was lawful. (If so, that would be to stick to the position Iain Dale previously described as that of "a liar or an incomptent fool"). Graham notes too that the MoS account would seem to contradict a 2008 Isabel Oakeshott report of what Watt is 'understood' to have told the police. (Graham infers that Watt may have been the source of this report). As nobody is allowed to read the book for a fortnight, one can't definitively judge whether the book clears up these mysteries.


Silent Hunter said...


Talk about sour grapes, Sunder! LOL

IsabelO said...

This book was my initiative, and I can assure you that neither Peter Watt nor I was motivated by money. Peter has an extraordinary story, and I felt it should be told. For his part, he wanted to set the record straight about the circumstances surrounding his resignation. It turned out he was sitting on a lot of interesting information, and I encouraged him to share it. From our point of view, it was as simple as that. Of course the publisher had to look at the project from a commercial point of view, but the truth is that Peter and I would have been happy to do it for nothing, if we'd had to, for our own differing reasons. I hope you read the book, as the serialisation gives only a flavour. And I challenge you, having read the book, not to understand and respect why he told his story. I think you will also see why Iain Dale believed in the project and was willing to publish for us.

Iain Dale said...

My response.

Sunder Katwala said...

This is the Iain Dale response link.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the reply. One of your primary non-financial motivations would presumably be the potential for it to be a major political story, which is a perfectly legitimate objective for a political reporter of course.

Peter's decision to publish a 'setting the record straight' account, as a new year 2010 book in this tone and with a particular eye to its newsworthiness (through his cooperation with you) obviously has the impact of damaging the Labour party electorally as well as Gordon Brown personally. I can't say whether it has that direct intention, but the foreknowledge that it is one of the consequences would of course be obvious to both authors.

There is no reason for you to be concerned by that, as a professional journalist. But that is also the reason it is accurate to say that "very few in his own party will thank him" (unless you can find me lots of people in his party who are doing so).

There could be one possible political motive for this: if Peter's view, last year, was that there was a fair chance be one last leadership bid in 2010 ahead of an election. Beyond that, it must be difficult to disentangle 'setting the record straight' from 'settling scores'. The extract very evidently does both: that is no doubt part of the journalistic craft brought to it.

Jimmy said...

"Peter has an extraordinary story,"

And when will that one be coming out?

Newmania said...

Whatever Watt's motivation - ego, financial gain, personal revenge, or a botched attempt to participate a weekend late in a farcical coup

Reminds me of the sort of thing Napoleon said about Snowball. Rather a lot of lickle spit lackeys and traitors about , are there not Sunder ?

rob's uncle said...

Orwell wrote, years ago, that England was like a family but with the wrong people in charge. I, a Lib Dem veteran [I am a member of St Vince’s team], feel the same way about the Labour Party. I hope that PW’s frank account of his time at the top of this can of worms will help the Labour party to get off its a**** and throw off its self imposed inertia and sycophancy and and put some decent sane decent people in charge, instead of the present mafia.

The British public have already seen through and rejected Brown so the party has everything to gain and nothing to lose by ejecting him before the election rather than after. To the dustbin with Gordon, comrades! History is on the march!

‘ . . Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’

[Tennyson: Ulysses]

My word verification is ‘cring’ - the mot juste for this blog!