Blair plotters met for curry

The move to try to force Tony Blair out of office was discussed over a meal at a Black Country curry house, it was revealed today.

Tom Watson and Sion Simon, two of the 17 Labour MPs who signed the explosive letter which split the Labour Party, dined at Wolverhampton's Bilash restaurant on August 31 - four days before the message landed on the Prime Minister's desk.

Seven people were at the table at the award-winning curry house, but the only MPs present were West Bromwich East MP Mr Watson, who resigned last week as a defence minister over the furore, and Birmingham Erdington MP Mr Simon.

Mr Watson praised the food when he signed the Bilash visitors' book after the £200 meal, saying it put many London restaurants to shame.

Mr Simon was also impressed, remarking: "Excellent food, excellent service, many thanks. This place needs a Michelin star."

Mr Watson, who had chicken vindaloo and saag paneer, washed down his meal with a beer while Mr Simon drank sparkling water.

The Sandwell MP said today that, while concerns about Mr Blair's leadership were discussed, the conversation around the table was mainly about "football and community radio". "I cannot really remember whether we discussed the letter. We certainly didn't discuss the detail of it," he said.

"But over a number of months Sion and I have talked informally about the direction of the Government and the reaction of our constituents."

Mr Watson said the contents of the letter, which called on Mr Blair to go sooner rather than later, had been discussed by those who signed it over the next two days in a series of phone calls. The former minister also strenuously denied discussing the resignation appeal with Gordon Brown during a visit to Scotland.

He said he had been in Scotland to attend three events as part of his duties as veterans' minister, and had decided to tag a couple of days' break on with his wife Siobhan and son Malachy.

"I could not get into the hotel I wanted to go to, so I called Peter Snape (Mr Watson's predecessor as West Bromwich East MP) to ask if he could recommend any hotels up there from his golfing visits," he added.

"He suggested the St Andrew's Bay Hotel, and as we had a present for little Fraser (the Browns' new baby), we decided to call in at their home on the way. At no point did we discuss the 2001 intake's letter with the Chancellor. That would have been quite inappropriate. The conversation was about teaching Malachy to read, and how young Fraser was getting on," said Mr Watson.

The group were spotted by an onlooker who told the Express & Star they sat at a normal table instead of using one of the Bilash's private rooms.

"There were another few in the group but I didn't recognise them," said the customer.

Mr Khan refused to confirm that the MPs ate at the restaurant but did say the venue was popular with politicians, including Wolverhampton South West MP Rob Marris, who was not among the diners.

Earlier in the day, Mr Watson and Mr Simon had had lunch in Ironbridge, but Mr Watson dismissed stories that he had been in a Dudley pub with another Labour MP, Ian Austin, Mr Brown's former press adviser.

"Nor have I seen two of the other so-called conspirators, David Wright (MP for Telford) and Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham Perry Barr) all summer," he said.

Mr Austin last night said the stories about him being in a Dudley pub with Mr Watson and Mr Simon were untrue.

"I never went to a curry restaurant with other MPs and never took part in a discussion about the letter sent by those elected in 2001.

"All this talk about me being involved in some plot in a curry restaurant is ridiculous," said Mr Austin.

Mr Watson, a well known curry lover, has named his five favourite restaurants on a website.

The MP told www.thestirrer.com that his top five were The Rickshaw, in Portersfield, Dudley, The Akash in West Bromwich High Street, The Vine in Roebuck Street, West Bromwich, Lasan Restaurant in Hockley and Teknaf in Bearwood Road, Smethwick.

EXCLUSIVE by John Hipwood and Stuart Pollitt

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