LABOUR politicians in Scotland are questioning Jeremy Corbyn’s judgment after the new UK leader appointed Lord Watson of Invergowrie to his front-bench, despite his conviction for fire-raising.
One Scottish Labour figure described Corbyn’s move to give the Scottish peer a role as education spokesman as a “farcical decision” while others expressed exasperation at the appointment.
Yesterday the Scottish National Party called on Corbyn to reconsider the appointment and remove Watson from his team.
A senior Scottish Labour politician said: “Eyebrows have been raised. It is very surprising. One can only assume Jeremy has struggled to persuade enough people to serve with him – that was my first thought.
“In a way it is less about Mike Watson and more about Jeremy Corbyn’s style of leadership. It suggests his judgment is questionable.”
Another said: “This is a farcical decision. I like Mike personally, but I think what he did was beyond the pale.
“It just baffles me. I don’t get it at all. Clearly they have not taken into account the public’s perception of this.”
The SNP depute leader, Stewart Hosie MP, said: “The appointment of Lord Watson is deeply disappointing. Jeremy Corbyn needs to re-consider this and do the right thing by removing Lord Watson from his front bench team.
“While it may be unfortunate for Mr Corbyn that he is having to cast the net so wide in order to find people to work with, this appointment must be reversed.
“We know many people in Labour are simply refusing to work with the new leader – but appointing a peer who was found guilty of fire-raising, endangering people’s lives in the process, is a step too far.”
Watson, who as a Labour MSP initiated Scotland’s foxhunting ban, was sentenced to 16 months in jail after admitting to trying to set fire to the curtains at the 17th century Prestonfield Hotel in Edinburgh following a drinking session at the Scottish Politician of the Year awards. He initially denied the charge, but CCTV footage showed him crouching at the base of a curtain in the hotel.
The fire took hold, causing £4,500 damage to the hotel’s Whisky Room in November 2004.
Watson eventually admitted a charge of wilful fire-raising at Edinburgh Sheriff Court and was sentenced to 16 months. He was released from prison after serving half of his sentence.
The controversy over Watson’s new job will not be lessened by the fact that his appointment gives an unelected Scot a key role in English education matters.
But Watson’s appointment was supported by another Labour peer, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who said his colleague deserved a second chance.
Foulkes, who more than 20 years ago was fined £1,000 for assaulting a police officer, said: “I think it is an excellent appointment. The offence was a long time ago. We are in favour of the rehabilitation of offenders.”