A motion to oust Tom Watson, deputy leader of the UK’s main opposition Labour Party, was withdrawn after it opened up divisions on the first day of the party’s conference, threatening to overshadow preparations for a general election.
The ruling National Executive Committee was due to vote on the surprise move on Saturday morning as delegates met in Brighton, southern England, for a gathering that was supposed to kick start the party’s campaign to oust Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Labour will now hold a review into the position of deputy leader as it tries to present a united front to voters. The plan to cut Watson’s position sparked fury from Labour members of Parliament and dominated the media on Saturday morning, eclipsing the party’s policy announcements.
The move was “a drive-by shooting,” Watson told BBC Radio earlier. “This conference is supposed to be a platform for what could be a general election in six weeks. We can’t have this sectarianism.”
Watson, who was elected on a separate mandate from leader Jeremy Corbyn, has publicly disagreed with the leadership on Brexit policy and has been pushing for a second referendum on the issue before a general election is held. He’s also been critical of the party’s slow response to allegations of anti-semitism.
The deputy leader said the move to abolish his post was driven by Jon Lansman, who founded and runs Momentum, a grassroots group set up to support Corbyn’s leadership, and Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite labor union, the party’s biggest financial backer.
Lansman said after the motion was withdrawn that he welcomes and supports the party’s plan to review the deputy leader’s role. He also appeared to recognize the division his move had caused.
“We need to make sure the deputy leader role is properly accountable to the membership while also unifying the party at conference,” he tweeted. “This review is absolutely the best way of doing that.”
The attempts to remove Watson were criticized by prominent Labour MPs including former leader Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper.
Labour is holding its annual conference in Brighton, where it plans to set out its agenda for the expected general election and highlight dividing lines from Johnson’s Conservative Party.
“What we need at this time is unity and a focus on winning the upcoming election,” Dave Prentis, general secretary of the labor union Unison, said in a statement. “Anything else is a betrayal of Unison members and working people everywhere -- all of whom are relying on us to deliver a Labour government.”