Emily Thornberry: "Boris Johnson is following Donald Trump's 'strong man' playbook. It's so dangerous"
After two years opposite “arrogant and lazy” Boris Johnson at the despatch box, Emily Thornberry is a practiced ‘girly swot’. She speaks to Kevin Schofield about the “undemocratic” Lib Dems, campaigning for Remain in a second referendum, and how the leadership can unite the Labour Party
It’s not a typical scene to be confronted with when you turn up to interview a member of the shadow cabinet. As I walked into Emily Thornberry’s office, she was standing precariously on a desk, having just come back in through an open window.
The shadow foreign secretary had been on her narrow balcony, where she retreats throughout the day to enjoy a quick cigarette and ponder the unfolding madness of the UK political scene. There’s rather a lot to think about these days.
As one of Jeremy Corbyn’s key lieutenants, Thornberry will play a vital role when the general election finally takes place. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that she shadowed Boris Johnson throughout his two years in the Foreign Office, the Labour leader has been tapping her up for advice on how to get under the prime minister’s skin.
“It was quite easy to beat him because, ironically, I was being a girly swot,” she laughs – a reference to Johnson’s description of David Cameron in recently-released court papers. “Because he’s so arrogant and lazy he doesn’t bother getting on top of his briefs or on top of details, and he thinks by a colourful turn of phrase it’ll be fine.”
Recalling their monthly Commons duels across the despatch box, she says: “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.”
Thornberry recalls how, on one occasion, she even had to inform Johnson of the gender balance of his own ministerial team, such was his lack of attention to detail. “When we had the Queen’s Speech and he’d just become foreign secretary, we were walking together through to the House of Lords and I said ‘congratulations Boris, who’s in your team, is it right you don’t have any women’? And he said ‘I’m sure I do’ and he didn’t know. I just thought ‘OK, this is who I’m up against – he’s foreign secretary and he doesn’t even know who is in his team’.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Johnson has quickly gained a reputation for being at the mercy of his advisers, and one in particular – Dominic Cummings. The former Vote Leave guru is seen by many as the true power behind the throne, urging the prime minister to rip up parliamentary conventions in order to deliver Brexit on 31 October.
Thornberry’s view on such matters is pretty traditional – advisers should advise, but it’s the politicians who should decide and ultimately carry the can if things go wrong.
She says: “I personally am 10 times the person I am because of my staff. They’re brilliant.
But I make the decisions. It’s up to me. They advise, but I’m in charge because in the end everything that goes out in my name – every letter, every press release – goes out with my approval and cannot do so otherwise.
“The problem with having a lazy prime minister, somebody who’s so uncaring and flippant and glib, is he is going to be captured and become somebody else’s creature, particularly if it’s a personality as strong as Dominic Cummings. And then you have Dominic Cummings almost having press briefings on his doorstep. It’s just not right. We are the elected politicians, we’re the ones who decide. My concern is there is simply not that control by elected politicians.
“I’m not saying that Boris’ election is the most ideal, but at least he was elected by 90,000 elderly white men from the Home Counties. Nobody has elected these advisers – it’s contrary to democracy.”
It was Thornberry’s determination to speak her own mind, rather than the words of those around her, which caused her first major schism with Corbyn earlier this year. On the night of the European elections, as it became clear that Labour’s all-thing-to-all-voters approach to Brexit had been roundly rejected at the ballot box, she told the BBC that the party only had itself to blame.
The ardent Remainer said: “We went into an election where the most important issue was what was our view on leaving the European Union and we were not clear about it.
“We should have said quite simply that any deal that comes out of this Government should be put to a confirmatory referendum and that Remain should be on the ballot paper and that Labour would campaign to Remain.”
Corbyn’s revenge was swift. When she was next due to stand in for her leader at Prime Minister’s Questions – as her other title of shadow first secretary allowed – Thornberry was benched in favour of Rebecca Long-Bailey. She’s fairly sanguine about the snub, and insists it won’t be forever. “I’m pretty confident I’m doing it in the future,” she reveals. “It was a decision for Jeremy and LOTO (leader of the opposition’s office) to decide, it wasn’t for me.”
Labour’s Brexit policy has shifted towards Thornberry’s position since May, but it remains opaque – so much so that she got herself into a bit of bother in a recent Question Time appearance while trying to explain it to the audience. While the party now backs a second referendum in all circumstances, how it would campaign if the alternative was a Labour-negotiated Brexit deal remains a mystery.
“We are now wedded to having a second referendum because so much has changed since three years ago,” Thornberry says. “The question then is what will the choice be. We don’t want to put these lousy Tory choices of no deal or Theresa May’s deal to the public. We want there to be two good choices.
“I would say anything other than leaving the European Union is not a good choice but it would be second best. We need to have a choice that will look after jobs and the economy as best we can, which means being in the customs union and being close to the single market.
“We’ve said we need, before we do finally leave, to have it confirmed with the public if they do want to leave, this is a way that makes sense, or we remain. It’s important that we’re clear about that, but I’m never going to be able to do anything other than campaign to Remain because I think we should be in the EU.”
With around 90% of Brexit motions submitted to Labour conference backing Remain, it’s pretty clear that the party’s membership are on the same page as Thornberry. However, Len McCluskey – head of Unite and a close ally of Corbyn – insists that advocating an unequivocally anti-Brexit stance at the election will be toxic among Labour Leave voters.
Thornberry says: “It will be for the party to decide. One of the by-products of us not having an election as soon as Boris wanted it is that we will have a party conference, which is an opportunity for the party to express its views. It’s obviously important for us to go back to the membership at a time like this and ask them what’s the best way through. I will certainly be putting the case that we should have a referendum, we should give the people a decent choice on leaving the European Union, but that we should campaign to Remain. Not everyone agrees with me, so we need to thrash it out. The party has to decide collectively.”
But even an arch-Remainer like Thornberry baulks at the Lib Dem solution to the Brexit impasse. The party has agreed that if it forms the next government, it will simply revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit altogether.
“The Lib Dems have gotten kind of Taliban, haven’t they?” she says. “They’ve said they’re just going to revoke, there’s not going to be another referendum. I don’t think it’s very democratic to seek to overturn a referendum without asking the people first. I really think the only democratic way to get through this and to break the logjam is to go back to the people and trust their good sense.”
Thornberry is also unimpressed by Tom Watson’s suggestion that a general election should not take place until after a second referendum, in which he would also advocate Remain.
Asked if the deputy Labour leader’s intervention had been helpful, she witheringly replies: “It’s just how he is, isn’t it? I haven’t seen him for a while. I haven’t seen him over the summer and he wasn’t at the last shadow cabinet. He hasn’t been on the front bench and he hasn’t been at Shadow Cabinet. But he’s deputy leader and he can say what he wants.”
Whenever the election does come – and the smart money is still on it being before the end of the year – Number 10’s strategy appears to be clear. It will be “The People” – in the form of Boris Johnson’s Brexiteers – versus “The Establishment” of MPs, Remainers and the judiciary. Thornberry senses trouble ahead.
“They’re going for Parliament, they’re going for the courts, but watch out, they’ll come for journalists as well,” she predicts. “It’ll be ‘the BBC are biased, anyone who doesn’t toe the line is biased’. And it’s so dangerous on lots of different levels.
“It’s dangerous to behave in such a way that you are causing chaos and disorder and breaking everything up without any idea of what you want to replace it with, and to give the impression of forward movement by being fundamentally disruptive – that’s totally from Trump’s playbook. It’s really, really unsettling. And presumably they hope that through that, people will think ‘oh my goodness, everything is so chaotic we need to hang on to the strong man’. That’s how Donald Trump plays it.
“But we know it’s dangerous just on a personal level for those involved. Journalists will go out into crowds and talk to people, and I know all journalists get a lot of anger through social media, but it translates into other things very easily and we know as MPs that it has translated. We’ve had MPs attacked physically and we’ve had someone murdered – this is really serious. It’s so completely unlike what we are as a country.”
Our interview over, Thornberry prepares to head back out to her balcony for another cigarette and a ponder. You get the impression she will find herself out there quite a lot in the weeks ahead.
Thornberry on coalition talks
We’re not coming to any arrangement with anybody. If we’re a minority government it’ll be up to the others to decide whether they support us or not, but if they bring down the government and let the Tories in they’ll have to go back to their constituents and explain why.
Thornberry on the Labour leadership
I think that Jeremy is leader until Jeremy decides not to be leader and there’s little point discussing anything else. Jeremy will lead us into the next election and he’ll be the next Prime Minister.
Thornberry on the US election
I really liked Elizabeth Warren. We got on. We talked over a whole range of subjects and you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between us on our approach to things. I met Joe Biden and I met Bernie Sanders, but I really liked her.
Thornberry on Israel
It’s wilfully destructive for Benjamin Netanyahu to suggest he’s going to annex parts of the West Bank. Whenever I go to Israel I always ask Israeli politicians ‘how do you see Israel in 10 years’ time?’ and I don’t really get any answer. I feel as though Netanyahu is all about what he needs to do to stay in power without any strategy about how to make peace and improve the lives of Israeli people. I don’t see how, if we end up with a one state in that area, how Netanyahu can deliver a democratic Jewish state because Jewish people will be in a minority. The only way through is to stick to a two-state solution and not to undermine it, which is what this is.
Thornberry on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
I’ve met the family several times and they are quite remarkable and stoical and extraordinarily lacking in bitterness. Boris shouldn't be afraid of them but I think he probably is, because of the many things he didn't do when he was foreign secretary, For example our failure to promote peace in Yemen, we’ve done nothing on the Rohingya. Sometimes in foreign policy it’s quite difficult to prove when someone is being lazy or incompetent or not giving political direction, but the thing with Nazanin is that it’s so obvious how bad he was and he couldn't even be bothered to read his brief before giving evidence. So of course he’s ashamed. How can he say it’s not his fault that this woman has had her sentence extended.
Thornberry on Labour anti-semitism
We have been doing the right thing. The fact there’s an inquiry by the Human Rights Commission can be read two ways, You can either decide it’s shameful and try to bury it, or you can embrace it and say ‘fine, we really have been struggling with this and frankly any advice that we are given should be welcomed because we clearly can’t sort it out by ourselves'. If we can set up something which is an example of good practice so that other parties which have problems … then other political parties may be able to copy it and that can only be to the good.