Emily Thornberry: The Government will not last five years. We need to be ready to go
With a minority Conservative administration looking more fragile by the day, Emily Thornberry says Labour must show the public that they are ready to enter government. The Shadow Foreign Secretary talks to Kevin Schofield
Emily Thornberry is a bit frustrated. She flew off to Israel last Wednesday, but on the strict understanding that she be had to be back for the Commons returning on Monday.
“We could bring down the Government at any time so we have to be here at all votes,” she laughs. “It curtails your ability to be able to travel.”
For a Shadow Foreign Secretary, this is a bit of an inconvenience. But for someone desperate to see a Labour government as soon as possible, the prospect of an imminent Tory collapse is delicious. Thornberry is convinced that the next election will come before 2022, and quite possibly sooner than we think.
“They’re not going to last five years, but whether it’s weeks, months or years, no one knows,” she says. “This is unprecedented. As a minority government, to stay in power you don’t do anything controversial. Well how’s that going? It could be something major like Brexit, but it could be something that we just don’t predict and seems relatively minor at the time.
“They’re so fragile that anything could happen to knock them over, and we need to be ready to go.”
As the person tasked with formulating the next Labour government’s foreign policy, Thornberry already has a clear vision of how her party would do things differently on the world stage.
She says: “The current government’s attitude post-Brexit is that nothing really matters apart from the bottom line, and we don’t believe that. We believe there needs to be an element of our foreign policy which is about international law, about human rights – it isn’t just about trade deals. We need to call out abuses no matter where it is.
“What we have to do is strip back to what is the essence of British foreign policy at its best, which is multilateralism, working with friends and the UN. We have a permanent place on the Security Council, we should be using that, we shouldn’t be Donald Trump’s mini-me.”
When the conversation turns to the situation in Yemen, Thornberry says I may have to shut her up as she could talk about it for hours.
“We are supposed to be the ones responsible for putting forward some sort of peace agreement for the international community in Yemen,” she says. “We were told one was being put down on the table a year ago, it then got taken off the table. Now there’s cholera in Yemen and we are vacating our role, we are not taking our role responsibly in the international community. We should be doing more than we are.
“You see Theresa May going to the Gulf states and not saying a word about human rights or Yemen, you see the president of the Philippines being feted by Liam Fox. This is not the way we behave. An awful lot of international law was written by British lawyers, we should be able to be a voice for principles against a cacophony of noise on the international stage. We could be doing something about multilateral disarmament - the current government didn’t even have it in their manifesto. Or when Trump bombs in Syria, there we were rushing to the front of the queue to say ‘well done’. No, not well done. We do things together, we don’t intervene in another country without the basis of agreement.”
The issue of nuclear weapons has caused controversy for Thornberry in the past. A known opponent of the renewal of Trident, she insists the matter is now settled; Labour’s support for it is not open to question.
“The vote has happened and the boats are being built, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take seriously our responsibility to ensure that we work with the international community to cut back on nuclear weapons with an idea at the end of it to get rid of them,” she says.
Another area where Labour is less than united is the question of Israel, which is why Thornberry’s visit is so important. She is no stranger to the country, having first visited in 1977 when her father was working for the UN Truce Supervision Organisation in Jerusalem. She went again five years later, and a few times as a backbencher – once with Labour Friends of Israel, once with a Palestinian group, and as her party’s representative at the funeral of former Israeli PM Shimon Peres last year.
“It’s one of the areas which we think is of great importance for British policy,” Thornberry says. “The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration reminds us that we’ve had a major role in the development of Israel and Palestine.”
She concedes that peace in the region “seems further away than ever”, with the two communities becoming increasingly separated. What is needed, Thornberry insists, is for people of good faith on both sides to continue working towards a lasting two-state solution.
She wants Labour to play its part in making that happen. But isn’t that made more difficult by the anti-semitism rows which have dogged the party for the past two years? Can Israelis have faith in her party’s intentions when many of its members express such distasteful views about the country?
Thornberry says: “You start on the basis of an acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist and their right to defend themselves and be secure. It is wrong for them to be attacked in the way that they are, it is wrong for their young people to have to be called up to the Israeli army because they have to defend their state. But at some stage you have to say ‘but’ and you go from there. Many of my friends here with a Jewish heritage are as critical as I am of the Israeli government.”
She is also fiercely protective of her fellow Islington MP, Jeremy Corbyn, who has been accused of turning a blind eye to the apparently anti-semitic views of some of his supporters.
“I’ve known Jeremy for a very long time and Jeremy is extremely easy going,” she says. “During the whole attempted coup, people would say all sorts of things about Jeremy and I remember him saying ‘They say I’m incompetent, maybe they’re right’ and shrug his shoulders. But call him a racist or anti-semite and he can’t stand it, he finds it profoundly upsetting.
“He’s somebody whose focus has been on the injustices that the Palestinian people have suffered over the decades. But to say that means he’s anti-semitic is sloppy and sectarian and exactly what we don’t need in Israel and Palestine. There are many people on the fringes of the Labour party that say things that quite frankly are inexcusable, and we have to call them out.”
Corbyn’s critics have pointed to his failure to turn up at this year’s Labour Friends of Israel reception at Labour conference – Thornberry went in his place – or last week’s dinner to mark the Balfour Declaration centenary as evidence of his anti-Israeli views.
But Thornberry says: “He got an award as Politician of the Year this week and he sent Diane Abbott to collect it. He went to a state banquet with the president of China and hasn’t been to one since, so I’ve been to them. And I’m up for that, I can buy myself a new frock each time and eat nice food – it’s cool. It just really isn’t his thing.”
Minutes after our interview, news breaks that comments made by Boris Johnson to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee could add another five years to the prison sentence of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British woman currently languishing in an Iranian jail. The Foreign Secretary had suggested she had been in the country “simply teaching people journalism”, which the Iranian Judiciary High Council interpreted as proof that she was not there on holiday, as she has claimed.
Thornberry says that having Johnson at the FCO means “the oxygen is being sucked out of our international standing”.
She adds: “Boris doesn’t pay enough attention to the detail of it and he’s got his eye on being Prime Minister and not being Foreign Secretary. It used to be that the best way to apply for the next job was to do your current job well, but that doesn’t seem to be his approach.
“Too often he seems to be behaving as if he’s in some form of dinner party and making jokes which are offensive and undermine our standing. What he said about clearing the dead bodies in Libya, calling some of our friends in Europe the same as concentration camp guards, I could go on. This is not diplomacy, this is not improving Britain’s standing in the world. This is hitting the headlines, focusing on the joke, and frittering away good will towards us.”
Johnson is not the only one rumoured to have designs on his party’s top job. Thornberry’s rise under – and loyalty to – Corbyn, allied to her impressive performances on the Labour frontbench, have left many to conclude that she is in the box seat for when a vacancy eventually arises. She’s having none of it, however.
“I want to be Foreign Secretary in a Labour government, and that will be up to the Prime Minister to decide,” she insists. “I think there is so much to do and I think we could do so much good. I find it inspiring. I feel as though we spent two years fighting about who is going to be leader of the Labour party. This is now settled, Jeremy will be leader for the foreseeable future, he will be Prime Minister.
“Let’s focus on that and focus on getting Jeremy into Downing Street.”
Although Labour massively exceeded expectations at the election in June, Thornberry does not subscribe to the idea that one more heave will automatically sweep them to power next time round. She has identified two groups – town dwellers and older voters – who still need to be won over if the party is to form the next government.
She says: “Sixty per cent of the most marginal seats are town seats and what we need is to make sure that we recognise towns have their own identities and we have policies that suit and fit them. We need to listen to people who are the backbone of the UK and what their desires are.
“We mustn’t be complacent and we need to make sure that when we speak to people that they hear us and we talk about the things which are their pre-occupations as well. They need to know that we say what we mean and mean what we say.”
Thornberry suggests a Cabinet-level minister should be appointed whose sole focus is on improving the lives of older people. It’s an eye-catching idea, but is it enough to win over the nation’s old folk?
“In the end, politics is about power and people need to know the political leadership has them in mind,” she says. “How much do we have in mind the needs of older people? We need to think about that more. The fear that people have is that although we’re going to be living longer, we won’t necessarily be living healthier lives. You hear stories about adults who wear nappies overnight because no one comes in to help them go to the loo. As a government in waiting we need to be thinking what our offer is in relation to social care. That is one of the big challenges for us.”
Regardless of whether Labour wins the next election, the question of who will lead them into it is settled. Does Emily Thornberry – who loyally supported Jeremy Corbyn when most of her Shadow Cabinet colleague were leaping overboard – feel vindicated?
“I’ve been a member of the Labour party since I was 17 and the vast majority of my time has been as an activist and I think it informs the way I am,” she says. “The Labour party belongs to its members and the members were clear about who they wanted as leader and I didn’t think it was right for the parliamentary party to go against what the membership wanted.
“Many of the people who did [want Corbyn to go] were friends of mine and I had a number of heated arguments with them. I did understand, the Labour party without power is nothing, and they genuinely thought that if Jeremy continued to be leader of the Labour party we wouldn’t get elected and so we couldn’t deliver on what we were about.
“But now that we’ve had the general election, Jeremy’s proved that he’s electable and so as far as I’m concerned, whatever happened before the election has happened. We should be a united party. I’ve huge respect for people who have come out and swallowed their pride and said ‘I was wrong’. Good for them.”
Emily Thornberry is now turning her attention to the small matter of the Middle East peace process. After successfully navigating the Labour civil war, it should be relatively straightforward.