Emily Thornberry's resignation shows a rattled Labour leadership. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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It's ironic that Thornberry's now the symbol of out-of-touch Labour – and it's Labour's fault

Emily Thornberry's resignation cements divisions in the Labour party already highlighted by this by-election battle.

The shadow attorney general, who resigned tonight having tweeted a picture of a house in Strood adorned with three St George’s flags, has become over the course of an evening a symbol of out-of-touch Labour.

Emily Thornberry is a London MP, and not just any old London – Islington. An area of north London often lampooned by journalists and politicians, including Labour MPs, for being home to an out-of-touch metropolitan liberal elite. All it took was this fact, and that she tweeted a picture of a white van parked outside a house bearing some England flags, for Labour to become the centre of a by-election story in which the Tories should be the real losers.

However, although pictures of her smart house in the constituency are now flying around the internet, she is not a symbol of out-of-touch Labour. She was raised by her mother on a council estate outside Guildford beyond the outskirts of London. She became a human rights lawyer, and since entering parliament in 2005 has mainly worked – conscientiously by many accounts – on justice matters, being made shadow attorney general in 2011.

It is an irony that this MP is being lambasted as a classic out-of-touch Labourite, for an act she could no way have known would be blown up like this. It is a symptom of problems at the heart of her party.

There are a number of factors working against Thornberry. First, her tweet was inadvisable, though as many have pointed out, it could have been interpreted in any number of ways. Second was her confused defence, which swerved from saying people were being “prejudiced” towards Islington, to claiming she thought it was the number of flags that was remarkable, not what the flags represented. She eventually apologised on Twitter for any offence she’d caused.

But third, and the worst, was the reaction of the Labour leadership, which blew up this minor Twitter scuffle being boisterously explored by journalists awaiting the by-election result into a resignation.

Briefings were hastily poured out that Ed Miliband was furious and had told her so, and then the resignation came – another sign of how rattled the leadership is about the heart of its party. As I wrote earlier, there are widening gulfs between the national party and its activists, and those with “Blue Labour” versus post-New Labour credentials. These divisions have been highlighted by this by-election battle, and Thornberry’s resignation sets them in cement.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.