The Labour leadership may be rowing back from the idea of having a second, female, deputy leader, but that isn’t stopping those who, like Emily Thornberry, fancy a shot at the top job one day. While the Shadow Foreign Secretary was totally loyal to Jeremy Corbyn when she spoke at a Times fringe this lunchtime, she started by talking movingly about her backstory, touching also on the need for a leader who has experience of the frontbench, and repeatedly referred to the importance of members in the Labour Party. It is well-understood that Thornberry would, one day, like to run for leader, and today’s performance not only underlined that, but also showed why she should.
On the anti-Semitism row, Thornberry also played to the audience, telling the event that Corbyn had found the whole experience very hard personally, saying ‘I think Jeremy has been through a great deal this summer’. She even argued that it was easy to see how Labourites might accidentally end up being anti-Semitic, saying:
‘Anti-Semitism changes in nature over time and I think that it is quite understandable… there may be people on the fringes of our party who are virulently anti-capitalist, virulently anti-Israel and you can see how the two can meld together into an anti-Israeli and then getting very closely into anti-Jewish and then end up falling into anti-Semitic tropes which have changed in nature over the years. And so being on the Left doesn’t stop you from being anti-Semitic.’
Her emphasis on the fact that ‘the Labour Party belongs to its members’ was striking, and it won her applause and sympathy from the audience. Some of the audience members complained that there had been too many questions about Labour’s handling of the anti-Semitism row and not enough about Emily Thornberry, which showed how effective she had been.
Mind you, not even a speaker of her calibre could really unravel the party’s Brexit position, and Thornberry certainly didn’t seem to keen to provide any kind of clarity on what Labour currently wants from a second referendum. When asked whether Sir Keir Starmer’s surprise inclusion of a pledge for there to be a ‘Remain’ option on the ballot paper was actually wrong, Thornberry said:
‘No, what we have agreed, and, we do talk about these things at the Shadow Brexit Sub-Committee, it doesn’t leak, well not very often, and we talk these things out amongst ourselves in a way that you don’t see the Tory party doing, and we have been able to agree a way forward, and it’s hard for us, you know, we have people who voted Remain, we have people who voted Leave, we have constituencies that went both ways, actually we are representative of the country in that […] What we have agreed is we need to have an injection of democracy, she hasn’t given us that injection of democracy, so we need to have something else. Our preference is for a general election, nothing is swept off the table and that includes a referendum, but we are not to be distracted from having a general election.’
She was asked again about that second referendum, and replied:
‘I think there are deeply anti-democratic forces around the world and in Britain too, and I am not going to be part of that. I think we had a referendum, we went up and down the country, I went up and down the country and I said to people this is serious, you have to make a decision and we’ll will abide by that.’
But asked whether Sir Keir’s suggestion of a ‘Remain’ option was part of those anti-democratic forces, Thornberry replied ‘no, no!’ before arguing that Labour hadn’t ‘just given the Tories a free pass to do whatever the frig they like’. You can make of that what you will, though a reasonable interpretation might be that Thornberry just didn’t want to say anything clear at all.