Emily Thornberry has become the first of the runners and riders to publicly confirm a bid for the Labour leadership rather than just express an interest in standing. The Shadow Foreign Secretary used a comment piece to lay out her case, which sought to dispel the idea that candidates should be assessed based on “their position on Brexit, or where they live in our country”. A similar view has been expressed by Keir Starmer.
This line of argument highlights the nervousness among potential contenders for the top role over the possibility that the debate could be dominated by whether Labour’s Brexit position was too Remain-friendly or by the assumption that the next leader should be a woman not representing a London seat. In many ways, Starmer and Thornberry are in the same ‘casting bracket’: pro-Remain North London MPs who are excellent at the despatch box and seen as highly capable. Thornberry arguably has shown more charisma, but she is still plagued by the infamous ‘white van’ tweet, and Starmer seems to poll much better with members.
Thornberry’s initial pitch is centred on the decision made by the leadership to back a December general election that was so desired by Boris Johnson. On this matter and at other crucial turning points, “I think that Jeremy has been badly let down and badly advised,” the Shadow Foreign Secretary told the BBC. “That has undermined him and drained away – too often – his authenticity, which was so important… I think he was let down.” She made similar comments on Peston last night. Some journalists and commentators have reacted with confusion, assuming that the frontbencher is ‘making excuses’ for Corbyn. But that misses her point.
The Islington MP isn’t really seeking to defend Corbyn as such. She is avoiding criticism of him because the electorate for this contest is still pro-Corbyn. More importantly, though, she is signalling to other Labour MPs that she would change the way operations are currently run. Corbynsceptics in the parliamentary party are worried about Rebecca Long-Bailey winning, yes, but they are most anxious about the staffing of the leader’s office. Whether the Corbynite frontrunner, who has not yet declared her intention to run, keeps LOTO as it is will be significant. There is speculation that ousting those figures could be part of her deal with Angela Rayner. Thornberry’s comments are designed to highlight her superior strategic thinking as well as tap into the key concerns of her colleagues with nomination powers. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.