Corbyn appoints fire-conviction peer to frontbench

Lord Mike Watson after his release from Saughton Prison in 2006. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Lord Mike Watson after his release from Saughton Prison in 2006. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE appointment to Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench team of a Scottish peer jailed for attempted fire-raising has been met with “incredulity” across the political divide.

Lord Watson was sentenced to 16 months in jail in 2005 after admitting trying to set fire to the curtains at the 17th-century Prestonfield Hotel, following a drinking session at the annual Scottish Politician of the Year awards.

Opponents said the “amazing” appointment raised further questions over the newly elected Labour leader’s judgment.

The disgraced peer was thrown out of the Labour Party after admitting two counts of attempted fire-raising when he appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, but was readmitted in 2012, with fellow Labour peer George Foulkes saying Watson had “served his time”. The Labour Party defended the appointment, saying he deserved a second chance.

But the SNP’s shadow Leader of the Commons Pete Wishart, who is also chairman of the Commons’ Scottish affairs committee, said: “People will see this appointment with complete incredulity.

“Not only that but he is being given the education brief with a responsibility for schools. Whatever level you look at this on, it is completely wrong and frankly quite extraordinary.”

He went on: “Lord Watson is actually an example of what is wrong with our political system with the House of Lords.

“It was amazing that he was allowed back into public life at all.”

The former Holyrood tourism minister was able to take up his seat in the Lords after he was released from prison because there was no provision for expelling convicted peers.

Lord Watson endangered the lives of guests at the political awards ceremony in 2004 after trying to set light to the hotel curtains. The flames destroyed a curtain and burned the curtain pole as smoke spread up the walls and across the ceiling, before staff managed to extinguish the blaze without fire crews being called.

The Tories said that the decision was one of a number of questionable appointments by Mr Corbyn less than a week after he received almost 60 per cent of the vote in the Labour leadership election.

They also highlighted the appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor.

He has had to apologise for suggesting that members of the Provisional IRA should be “honoured.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “Across Scotland, people will be staggered by this decision.

“Coming after Mr Corbyn appointed an IRA sympathiser as shadow chancellor, it amply demonstrates that Labour’s claim to credibility is now in tatters.”

However, a spokesman for Mr Corbyn insisted the new leader believed the convictions were now in the past. He said: “Lord Watson was readmitted to the Labour Party in 2012 and following his rehabilitation it is right he should be allowed to play a full part in public life.”

The controversy comes amid claims that Labour MPs, most of whom did not want Mr Corbyn as leader, are considering defecting from the party because of the far-left turn it has taken.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said several Labour MPs have approached him about possibly joining the party.

Meanwhile a national newspaper has claimed that the Tories have held talks with three Labour MPs, two of whom could be about to switch.

However, in a bid to bring unity, Mr Corbyn has attempted to give jobs to people from all wings of the party including the peer behind the Labour leadership election reforms that gave thousands of supporters a vote for £3. Lord Collins will serve as a party whip and a member of the international development team in the new leader’s finalised list of appointments.

Former top prosecutor Keir Starmer, tipped as a future leader, joins the shadow home affairs team while Emily Thornberry returns to the frontbench less than a year after being forced to quit as shadow attorney general in a row over snobbery.

The list of shadow ministers includes a number of jobs for the 2015 intake as well as MPs that were considered on the fringes of the Labour party under previous leaders.