Emily Thornberry is so keen to avoid the question of whether she will be the next leader of the Labour Party that, when asked if she agrees with John McDonnell that it will be a woman, she says only “probably”. Probably? “It’s a long way off. We have to get Jeremy into No 10 first.”
Didn’t the union leader Len McCluskey already anoint her as his own chosen successor on the basis that she is the great unifying figure? “There is not a competition,” she states. “There is no vacancy.”
So we ask in a different way. Is Thornberry psychologically robust enough for the top job? After all, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, ruled it out on the basis that she values her “mental health too much”.
Here Thornberry chuckles. “Good try,” she says. But she can’t resist. “I’m not a depressive. No.” She is “cheerful” and “hyperactive” — “a bit of a Duracell bunny”. And anyway, at 58 she has seen “a great deal… Clearly that gives me stability.”
If you like your politicians poised and polished, Emily Thornberry is not that. She smokes.
She’ll have a glass of wine. She mouthed swear words in the Commons and asked whether Boris Johnson should have a paternity test over Brexit. She called the Government’s EU divorce plans “blah blah blah” and told Tory MP Michael Fallon on live television he was talking “bollocks”. Actually, she likes the word “bollocks”: she uses it three times in the two hours we are with her, to describe Theresa May’s threat of “Chequers or no deal”.
More than half the councillors in Islington are women. We have been feminising Labour in a very profound way
Not that the Left has got off lightly. She blasted its National Executive Committee when she thought it was trying to “quash” Corbyn and called some newer members of Momentum “naïve”. She’s the sort of person to go on the record when everyone else does “background”, and looks at home in the punchy theatre of PMQs, as a barrister with 20 years in court might. Even when “sexist” Tories call her “Lady Nugee” — her husband is High Court judge Sir Christopher Nugee — she laughs. It’s a big deep laugh that fills the room. At other times she flicks her nails or stares over her folded arms.
Today we’ve met in her constituency office in Islington South and Finsbury. It’s in one of the pretty Georgian streets she calls “the leafy lanes”, as opposed to the estates there, and she gives us strong coffee and chocolate biscuits. On the shelves are the complete works of Shakespeare (“People send me books. I don’t always read them”).
Thornberry answers questions as if shelling peas. Yes, if she were Foreign Secretary she would stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Yes, she would tick off Donald Trump over climate change — “the fact that the American administration thinks that it can walk away from Paris [the accord] is appalling”.
She’s making a total of 17 speeches at the party conference, which starts tomorrow, but the main one “is on foreign affairs and Labour’s policy thereon”.
But her real focus is how Labour gets power. One of her major criticisms of the Conservatives is that “they’ve just been faffing around for a couple of years, never thinking about the good of the country, only thinking about fights among themselves”. Clearly she doesn’t want Labour to be accused of the same.
She seems bored to the point of annoyance by the kerfuffle over structure and deselection. “How much time are we going to spend on this when we could, frankly, be spending it on developing policies for when we get power?” she says.
And on the NEC debates on limiting the deputy leader’s power in the event of a change of leadership, she emits an audible sigh. “I’m afraid you’re hitting my blind [spot]. I’m not on the NEC — I have to say, this is a blessing.”
On Brexit she is pragmatic, while admitting if there was a second referendum she’d still vote to remain. How many of the front bench would? “I would’ve thought the majority.” Would Corbyn? “Yeah, I think so.”
She volunteers that she has often “disagreed” with Corbyn, the neighbouring Islington MP, as if healthy debate were absolutely where the Labour Party is, instead of threatening to snuff out dissent.
“It’s fine,” she insists. “He has always been completely lovely. He’s kind and supportive… we look after each other.”
In the past, “if I was being criticised on the Left, Jeremy would say, ‘I don’t agree with Emily but I understand why she is saying this and it comes from principles…’ And he would defend me.”
Corbyn is “Zen”. “He’s easy-going. And sure of himself in his own skin and of what he’s doing.”
The only time she’s seen him floored was over anti-Semitism. “Because it goes so against his idea of who he is. He has taken it personally.”
For instance, “during the last rebellion [against his leadership], people were saying the most terrible things. And I remember him saying, ‘One of them says I’m incompetent! What do you think Emily? Ha ha ha.’ He was fine.
“But calling him an anti-Semite? Calling him a racist? That just went straight to the absolute core. It really distressed him.”
As a result, she suggests, he didn’t halt the row as quickly as he might have. “It reminded me of Gordon Brown: do you remember during the expenses scandal when the son of the Manse, the last person on Earth who would have misused public funds, was accused of misusing public funds? He found it very difficult in those circumstances to get past his righteous indignation… to be strategic and to divorce the emotion and think things through.”
She draws the comparison “to make it clear that no leader is a God. We are just people. We have emotions.” Of course, “that isn’t to say there isn’t a big issue”.
Being Thornberry, she tackles anti-Semitism head-on. When people come up in the street and say: “Well done Emily. Hopefully Jeremy is going to be Prime Minister, and don’t let the Jews get you down” she gives them short shrift. “I say: ‘That’s not acceptable. I have Jewish members of staff. They work night and day to get Labour elected.”
Her children, too, have Jewish heritage. “I joined Labour Friends of Israel when I became an MP in 2005,” she says. “I support the Palestinians’ right to have a state and I support the state of Israel. It doesn’t mean I agree with Netanyahu, for goodness sake.”
Arguably, her fascination with foreign affairs can be traced to childhood: her father Cedric was an Assistant Secretary-general of the UN. But he walked out when Emily was seven, leaving her, her mother Sallie and two brothers with nothing. They moved into social housing, were given free school meals and second-hand clothes.
But she is careful to draw a distinction on class lines. “We were middle-class, but poor. There was a level of expectation from my mum: I expected to go to university, I just wasn’t entirely sure how I would get there. I’m as aware of the class system as anyone and it would be disingenuous to say I am working class.”
Her father left “because he fell in love with someone else”, she says simply. No wonder she has so little time for Boris Johnson. When the family moved from Guildford to London, she went to a large secondary modern. A Sex Pistol was at school, she doesn’t know which one so consults Google for fear of getting it wrong. “Glen Matlock.” She looks none the wiser. “Turns out that the bassist from Culture Club was also there,” she adds. “Don’t remember any of them.” She had a good “gang” — they were into soul music and “upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s”.
She met Nugee practising law – “he’s clever and kind, I’m very proud of him and I love him”. They moved into a dilapidated house in Islington and did it up while raising three children. She doesn’t iron shirts – “No! Although to be fair we tend to do [domestic] things together.” They have a cleaner who she says is from Holloway. How much do they pay her? Thornberry delivers one of her looks.
The day they moved in, another removal van carrying another legal couple parked up. “Four lawyers on the same day having their furniture unloaded,” she laughs. The other two were Tony and Cherie Blair.
She’s blasé, saying they didn’t really know the Blairs. But she vividly recalls returning on foot from the Festival Hall amid the explosion of celebration after the 1997 election result. The Blairs drew up in their car to be met by crowds of well-wishers. “I thought ‘I should go and stand in the crowd’ but I was so tired.” Instead she crept to bed. After that, the Blairs were swallowed up by No 10 and fame but she plays it down. “All sorts of people live in Islington. There’s a culture of, ‘I’ve just walked past Jimmy Somerville but I am not going to look twice’.”
It’s often said that Thornberry wouldn’t have been out of place in any Labour Cabinet or shadow Cabinet since Blair’s. Whether true or not, she won her own seat in 2005 when the shine had definitely gone off Blair following the Iraq war. When she looks for comparisons it’s Gordon Brown she draws on, and indeed she inherited her aide Damian McBride, from his side.
We return to leadership. Thornberry originally voted for Yvette Cooper in the 2015 contest, but why in it’s 118-year history has Labour failed to produce a female leader? “OK but more than half of the councillors in Islington are women, 45 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party are women, half the shadow Cabinet. It’s a different way of doing women’s politics, more grassroots coming up. We have been feminising Labour in a very profound way, in a way you don’t see in the Tories. Which is why I say probably the next leader will be a woman.”