The shock news of Tom Watson’s resignation as deputy leader of Labour has caused introspection and anger among parliamentarians concerned over Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation of the party.
Dawn Butler, the shadow women’s minister, was the first person to confirm that she would run for the vacant position, and Watson’s former allies in the parliamentary party said they would have to find a new standard-bearer for Labour’s centrists.
Watson stunned many politicians on Wednesday by announcing that he would leave his seat and his pivotal role at the heart of the party. He had clocked up 35 years in politics.
His colleagues have blamed his decision on a four-year war of attrition with close aides of Jeremy Corbyn. In a statement, Watson insisted that it was “personal, not political”.
Pat McFadden, a former minister and Labour centrist, said Watson’s resignation had left a vacuum for many in the parliamentary party. “On a human level, I understood Tom’s decision, but I think it is a big loss because he was playing a very important role.”
Another politician expressed respect for Watson’s decision but suggested he had effectively “abandoned” moderates on the eve of a general election and as further rows brewed over Brexit and antisemitism.
“Tom’s timing was more than unfortunate. We have an enormous battle coming over the future of the party. If people don’t have the heart for the battle, they should get off the field. But it leaves some of us feeling abandoned. Tom was our shield,” the source said.
Butler announced that she would stand for the role, while others urged the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, to put their names forward.
Butler, a close ally of Corbyn, told Bloomberg she would enter the contest when nominations opened after the election. “I’ve thought very carefully about who should replace Tom, and after giving it some thought, I will be throwing my hat in the ring,” she said.
Centrist prospective MPs are expected to concentrate on the general election with the aim of regrouping afterwards. One insisted they would field a candidate for the vacant deputy leadership.
Conor McGinn, who was MP for St Helens North, has been critical of Corbyn, but was thought to be considering a run to be deputy leader. He told PoliticsHome: “There is a conversation after the election about the future of the Labour party and I want to be part of that.”
Watson is known by his friends to be much happier away from parliament than within it. As a remain supporter, he faced a difficult contest to retain his predominantly leave-voting seat in West Bromwich East.
After Watson was criticised over his involvement in claims about an alleged Westminster paedophile ring, his opponents would have included Harvey Proctor, the former Tory MP who was wrongly arrested over allegations that he had murdered and abused young boys. Proctor subsequently withdrew his candidacy.
Watson, who had a 7,000 majority, also faced a challenge from George Galloway, who is standing on a pro-Corbyn, pro-Brexit platform.
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The deputy leader’s resignation came weeks after supporters of Corbyn failed in an attempt to abolish the post that he held as a way of ousting him.
In a letter to Corbyn, Watson said he would not be leaving politics altogether. “I will be taking an active part in this election campaign. I will continue as deputy leader until 12 December and will do everything I can to return a team of Labour MPs who will transform our country,” he wrote.
In response, Corbyn said: “Few people have given as much to the Labour movement as you have.”
Friends of Watson said he told Corbyn’s office of his decision more than a week ago but that both men decided to wait and make a public announcement in the middle of Boris Johnson’s election campaign launch.
Labour’s national executive committee is expected to set a timetable for a deputy leadership election in the new year, party sources said.