In the latest of his in-depth interviews with the island’s 24 MHKs, PAUL SPELLER talks to Juan Watterson, the youngest ever Speaker of the House of Keys. Mr Watterson lifts the lid on his time in the Council of Ministers and talks about accusations that he plotted a coup against the then chief minister Allan Bell.
A former minister has revealed the breakdown of trust between cabinet colleagues in the previous government.
Juan Watterson, now the Speaker, was home affairs minister under Allan Bell. What the Speaker has to say about that administration is telling.
It is fairly common knowledge that Mr Watterson and Mr Bell were not the best of friends.
In early 2015, Mr Watterson was accused by this newspaper of plotting a ’coup’ to usurp Mr Bell, who was at the time away from the office due to illness.
Mr Watterson denied the story, but the Examiner stood by its claims. Mr Bell said he believed Mr Watterson. But the tensions were there for all to see.
’That was a story spun by one of my political colleagues to a journalist, which had no foundation at all,’ he tells me.
’Allan Bell had been off work for personal reasons for over a month and my biggest mistake was asking "what happens if he doesn’t come back?" and that became a conspiracy theory.
’It taught me that, just because you are in the Council of Ministers and proceedings are confidential, you still have to be careful of people you think you can trust.’
He says he spoke to Mr Bell and suggested the chief minister talk to other parties to the conversation as he had nothing to hide.
’It is amazing what some people will do for a cheap shot,’ he adds.
He chooses his words carefully but it is clear he feels the cabinet was not a happy or effective workplace in that period. It became de rigeur at the time to criticise the Council of Ministers’ ’silo mentality’ - Mr Bell was one to do so - but Mr Watterson says there was little done from the top to counteract it.
Of Mr Bell’s leadership, he says: ’It didn’t help inspire a sense of team.’
The Speaker also believes that the House of Keys, as a whole, will be a more co-operative and less antagonistic environment than in previous parliaments, following the arrival of 12 new members.
After the 2016 election, Mr Watterson became the youngest Speaker of the House of Keys, at 36.
As one of the few MHKs left with ministerial experience, his name was mentioned as a candidate for chief minister, or at least a kingmaker’s role in exchange for a senior position. But he went in a different direction.
’Coming out of the election, there were a few potential options for chief minister. I think quite a lot of people would have thought I might have gone for treasury minister and there was also the vacancy that Mr President (previous speaker Steve Rodan) left.
’In terms of chief minister, there were not an awful lot of people knocking on my door saying "you should do it", so I thought I would leave that.’
As we talk about the chief minister election, he refers more than once to the two candidates - it appears Kate Beecroft’s candidature has slipped his mind rather than a deliberate slight.
He says it became increasingly clear that whichever of the ’two’ candidates won, the other would become treasury minister, so he turned his attention to the speaker’s role.
Our discussion takes place in the Speaker’s office. It is fairly luxurious in comparison with the rooms shared by the other MHKs, although Mr Watterson is keen to point out that its design would have been at the behest of a predecessor.
The office - both in terms of his room and the position he holds - has the potential to be a haven of hubris. However, to counteract this, there is a picture on his wall that recreates, in silhouette form, Monty Python’s famous Ministry of Silly Walks scene. It was a present from staff at the Department of Home Affairs, where he was previously minister, who felt his office there needed brightening.
Mr Watterson says he never felt the urge to personalise that office because he was never sure for how long he would be the occupant.
He is guarded on some of the findings of the Lisvane Report and is not alone in raising an eyebrow at how quickly it was produced, wondering whether it allowed the peer to get a true feel for the nuances of Manx politics.
Mr Watterson favours a fully elected Tynwald. At the general election, voters would receive a constituency ballot paper and also a ballot paper of every candidate, to list an order of preference for as many as they wish. That way, after the 24 MHKs were elected regionally, the next eight most popular candidates could be put into Legislative Council.
It would also give a much better indication of the public’s preference for chief minister.
Asked about what he considers his greatest achievement so far in his career, Mr Watterson says it is the reforms he brought in in the Department of Home Affairs, where he restructured the police to deliver the same services with fewer officers. He also instigated reforms in criminal justice and made moves for streamlining in the fire service.
His biggest regret is that he has yet to succeed in attempts to modernise the Budget process. His greatest concern is the Budget is announced and debated straight away, with no time for public debate or consultation - and that members are faced with an all or nothing vote.
’There is only very limited ability for members to see and understand the Budget in advance. It is announced and voted upon on the same day, so there is no ability for any public participation in the process.’
It has been a long walk from being seen as the new boy, wet behind the ears, rather like Ian Lavender from Dad’s Army, to his position now as the man who presides over the rest of the House of Keys.
’When I came in as an MHK, I was very much treated like a Private Pike-type who did not have very much to bring to the table. I don’t think from some parties there was the recognition of the skills I had picked up along the way even though I was relatively young.’
We cannot conduct an in-depth interview, of course, without mention of that incident on a bus. At Christmas time 2011, on the same day that he had issued a message about responsible drinking, Mr Watterson was unwell on a bus, after drinking. The headlines reached all the way to Private Eye.
He kept his cabinet job, but the very fact that it is the thing mentioned most when I say I am on my way to see him, must rankle.
He stiffens a little when it is raised. ’What is there left to say?’
One suspects Mr Watterson hopes to ensure that, when the time comes for his political epitaph to be written, there will be other things to talk about.