Tom Watson, the MP whose resignation helped plunge Labour into crisis, has insisted he has no regrets – and is looking forward to life on the backbenches.
Mr Watson (Lab West Bromwich East) plans to rededicate himself to the campaigns that made him a household name, targeting unethical behaviour in parts of the media and uncovering evidence about historic allegations of child abuse which police have overlooked.
He also hopes to help establish a new legal framework to govern the use of drones – miniature aircraft which can be used as weapons of war or spying devices.
He quit as Labour’s deputy chairman and campaigns co-ordinator in the wake of a simmering row over the role of trade unions in selecting Labour candidates.
His office manager, Karie Murphy, had been selected to fight the Scottish seat of Falkirk for Labour with the backing of Unite.
Although Mr Watson had no role in the selection process, his friendship with Unite general secretary Len McCluskey – the pair once shared a flat – was highlighted by some newspapers and bloggers.
The resignation focused attention on the controversy and critics challenged Labour leader Ed Miliband to prove that he ran his party rather than the unions.
Speaking to the Birmingham Post Mr Watson insisted he was glad to be back on the backbenches, although he was sorry if his resignation had made life harder for Mr Miliband.
And he revealed that he plans to perform a crucial role in helping victims of historic sex abuse.
The MP believes he has been neglecting the inquiry he launched into historic allegations of child abuse – despite receiving testimony from survivors of abuse who were speaking out for the first time.
The inquiry really took off when he raised it in the House of Commons, he said. “It led to an explosion where we had about 300 separate allegations made through my team, not all of them valid – the majority just repeating rumours they had read on the internet – but within that pile there were survivors of sexual abuse who have spoken out for the first time.
“And I think a couple of those could be significant witnesses if the police inquiry proceeds in the way it’s going. There’s a lot to do on that and I feel duty bound to do it, because when you meet some of these survivors they are very vulnerable people.
“That had been playing on my mind. There’s that nagging doubt that I’ve unleashed this inquiry but not given it the attention it deserves. I’m very much looking forward to reallocating time to that bit of it.”
The inquiry grew out of his earlier investigation into phone hacking, he said.
“It started with a single email from a retired child protection officer in the Midlands, who said they tried to get this investigated back in the early 90s, Everyone ignored them.
“Jimmy Saville happened and they said ‘you’re the guy who took on Murdoch and so we think you might be able to help us’.
“I looked at this email and thought, ‘if I reply to this it’s probably another two years of my life taken up’.”
Other campaigns he intends to go back to are those surrounding News International boss Rupert Murdoch, and the controversial issue of attack drones, which he had been forced to neglect while Labour’s campaign co-ordinator.
He said: “There are still new sources coming in giving me information about the scandal afflicting Rupert Murdoch which I need to follow up on.
“I’m the chair of the all-party group on drones and I want to follow up that work. I see drones and this automated technology as a new generation of military hardware that’s going to require a new international framework of laws to deal with, and I want to be part of the debate about what that framework might look like.”
In fact, life as a backbencher would allow him to achieve more than the front-bench role he held since 2011 – which had taken a toll on his health, he said.
“It was beginning to take its toll. I was feeling physically at a low ebb and unhealthy.”
The role actually prevented him from getting involved in policy debates, because Labour colleagues were suspicious of him stepping outside his campaigning brief, he said. “I was in the only position in the Shadow Cabinet where I didn’t have a policy brief so I couldn’t speak out on anything.
“I set up the all-party group on drones to try and have objective discussions on the future of this new technology and it caused a bit of tension in the system – people saying ‘why is he doing that?’
“So there comes a point where what is politically rewarding, doing good stuff, was outweighed by not being able to do other good stuff.”
Mr Watson said he regretted causing any difficulties for the Labour leadership – but not losing his job. “I know there is this media frenzy about Ed’s leadership and Falkirk, and I’m sorry about that. But I’m not personally upset that I’ve gone, I’m quite relieved really and very happy to be serving Ed in another capacity.”
Mr Watson had already resigned from front-bench jobs twice before– quitting as a Defence Minister in 2006, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, and then leaving Gordon Brown’s government in 2009.
He had actually been looking forward to life on the backbenches, and had to be persuaded to accept the campaigning role when Ed Miliband offered it to him in 2011.
“On the day that he called me in I had an inkling that he was going to offer me a job and I walked into his office in the certain knowledge that I would say no. I walked out with a job. He’s a very persuasive individual is our Ed.”
While Conservatives and other critics paint Mr Watson as a creature of the unions, he insists that he repeatedly took on union bosses during his time as deputy chairman.
“A lot of the job I spent facing down city and regional secretaries to get them to do sensible things.”
This included insisting they allow women and ethnic minority candidates to fight union seats when the favoured union candidate was a white male.
“Throughout the time Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in office, Labour never got a woman elected in a by-election. And since Ed’s been leader we’ve had five women elected in a by-election.”
The national party has very little control over the general election selections – such as the one in Falkirk.
“But in by-elections the national party decides on the shortlist and you have to have some quite difficult conversations when you do that, and most of it is talking to people about why we need a diverse array of candidates.”
Having resigned from front-bench jobs no fewer than three times now, Mr Watson must surely be prepared for a life on the backbenches.
But asked if he could ever accept another senior job, he says it’s highly unlikely – but not impossible.
“After I resigned the first time I said I would never go back to the front-bench.
“The second time, I said I’m not going to say never. So I’m not going to say never this time, but I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be back for a fourth time.”