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By Hft
By Dods General Election Hub 2019

LABOUR LEADERSHIP: Emily Thornberry - Shadow Foreign Secretary aims to 'panic' Boris Johnson

LABOUR LEADERSHIP: Emily Thornberry - Shadow Foreign Secretary aims to 'panic' Boris Johnson
6 min read

Emily Thornberry may have only subtly hinted before the election at her ambition to become Labour leader - but following the party’s disastrous defeat she was the first to enter the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. 

The Shadow Foreign Secretary told the New Statesman back in December she was “just getting into her prime”, after serving as MP for Islington South and Finsbury since 2005.

The 59-year-old has been a key ally of Mr Corbyn since she joined his top team in 2015 - as well as being his constituency neighbour in north London.

Thornberry has been one of the most vocal senior voices for Remain in the Labour party, and a prominent backer of a second referendum. 

But the leadership hopeful has said she wants to draw a line under the battles of Leave and Remain, left and right, north and south, and instead focus on taking Boris Johnson.

Setting out her stall in The Guardian, Ms Thornberry said: “The first question should... be: what’s your plan for taking on Johnson over the next five years? And do you have the political nous and strategic vision to reunite our party, rebuild our machine, gain the trust of the public, give hope to our declining towns and smaller cities, and never again waste the opportunity to take back power?"


Thornberry, a former criminal barrister, prides herself on her record facing the now-PM at the despatch box, pushing this as her unique selling point over her rivals. 

During his stint as foreign secretary, Ms Thornberry described how she “pummelled him every week” and that “he hated it, especially coming from a woman”.

In an interview with the House magazine, Ms Thornberry also revealed her battle tactics in the chamber - giving a glimpse of what her leadership style against the Prime Minister could be.

“It was quite easy to beat him because, ironically, I was being a girly swot,” she explained.
“I would never go for him on broad brush attacks, but go on fine details and wait for the look of panic in his eyes and I’d know he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. That’s the way to get him – to be a girly swot.”

The senior Labour figure has also been openly critical of Labour's handling of the anti-semitism crisis that has gripped the party, saying chiefs should be “utterly ruthless” in dealing with it. 

“No more suspensions, training sessions, or forgiveness, I would just kick these scumbags out of our party, the way we should have done long before now,” she wrote in Jewish News this week.

The contender said tackling anti-semitism would be her most “urgent and immediate priority” if she takes up the Labour crown, and called on the party to urgently adopt recommendations made by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement and Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Born in 1960, Thornberry grew up in Guildford with her mother and two brothers living in a council estate after her father Cedric Thornberry, a human rights lawyer, left the family when she was just seven years-old.


The Labour politician has described herself as “bolshie” and “cheeky” at school, saying she was sometimes picked on and bullied - but used to fight back. She failed the 11+ exam and instead went to a secondary modern which she described as having had low expectations of its students. On one occasion her careers teacher suggested "you can always visit people in prison".

Thornberry joined the Labour party at the age of 17 saying she was motivated by her childhood experiences and and worked various jobs including behind a bar and folding cards in a factory before going on to study law at the University of Kent. It was there she met her husband Christopher Nugee, a high court judge with whom she went on to have three children. 

The MP first stood as a candidate in Canterbury at the height of the Blair government in 2000, and while that bid was unsuccessful, Thornberry joined the Commons at the next election. She rose to prominence under Ed Miliband, gaining her first shadow cabinet role in 2010, first as as shadow minister for energy and climate change, health and then as Shadow Attorney General in 2014.

That was the year Thornberry's career encountered a major snag, with the rising star accused of snobbery on the campaign trail for the Rochester and Strood by-election. At a time when the party was spooked by the challenge from Ukip, Thornberry tweeted  a picture of a house flying a St George's flag with a white van in the drive, captioned ‘Image from Rochester’. The move drew criticism even from the Labour benches, and, despite an apology, Thornberry was forced to resign from an "angry" Miliband’s team. 

Thornberry's comeback under Corbyn was rapid, however, and in a moment of drama in the Labour leadership race, she made it onto the ballot with just minutes to spare after scooping up the backing of the 22 MPs and MEPs needed to head into the next stage despite a slow start.

She will now need to convince either Labour members or party affiliates (including two trade unions) that she has what it takes for the top job.

Fabian Hamilton. who served under Thornberry as shadow minister for peace and disarmament, is one of those who has been won over by her pitch.

He told PoliticsHome: “Not only is she an inspirational leader that truly gets the best out of everybody she works with, but she also commands my utmost confidence owing to her impressive breadth and depth of detailed knowledge of her brief - something I know she would only improve on as Leader of the Opposition, while bringing a new level of stability to the role and to the Party, as a result.

"During Boris Johnson’s time as Foreign Secretary, Emily consistently and powerfully put Labour’s case for humanitarianism and a truly ethical foreign policy to the government. 

"In light of the events in Iran, it’s absolutely vital that Labour elects a leader who will uphold our commitment to human rights, peace and disarmament. These have always been core Labour values and will certainly be enhanced under Emily’s leadership."


  • Age: 59
  • Constituency: Islington South and Finsbury 
  • Positions held: Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister (May - October 2010), Shadow Health Minister (October 2010 - October 2011), Shadow Attorney General (October 2011 - November 2014), Shadow Work and Pensions Minister (September 2015 - January 2016), Shadow Defence Secretary (January 2016 - June 2016), Shadow Brexit Secretary (July 2016 - October 2016), Shadow Foreign Secretary (June 2016 - present). 
  • Fun fact: She was very fond of her children’s pet rats. She recalled one outing to John Lewis where one escaped in the womens’ changing rooms. “It was quite an adventure, having pet rats,” she told the House magazine. 
  • Odds: 100/1

Read the most recent article written by Anahita Hossein-Pour - 'We had to fight tooth and nail': BAME parliamentarians talk representation and tackling racism


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The House Magazine
The House Magazine

Read the latest issue of Parliament's weekly magazine, featuring Lindsay Hoyle, Emily Thornberry, Tom Tugendhat, Tobias Ellwood, Robert Halfon, Jess Phillips, Rosena Allin-Khan and more

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