Today was supposed to be a day of disaster for the Tories, with the party already conceding defeat to Ukip in the Rochester by-election. But it has turned into one for Labour. Emily Thornberry has just resigned as shadow attorney general over her careless tweet from Rochester of a house in Strood with three England flags flying from its windows.
— Emily Thornberry MP (@EmilyThornberry) November 20, 2014
She was immediately criticised by members of all parties, with Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, declaring that it was “derogatory and dismissive of the people” He told Mail Online it was “like the Labour Party has been hijacked by the north London liberal elite and it’s comments like that which reinforce that view”.
Thornberry, the MP for Islington South and Finsbury, initially defended her tweet, telling the Guardian: “I’ve been down in Rochester, you know, and I’ve been tweeting one or two quotes that, what people have said to me on the door step, and images that I’ve seen … and then I came across a house that was covered absolutely from the roof all the way down to the ground with England flags, they couldn’t even see out of the window. It was an amazing image so I took a photograph of it and I put it on Twitter.”
But after being reprimanded by a reportedly “furious” Ed Miliband, she tweeted an apology for “any offence caused” saying: “People should fly the England flag with pride!” That, most assumed, would be the end of it. But her resignation means what some regarded as a side-story has, to the delight of the Tories, been put centre-stage. Yet with outrage over the tweet building (see tomorrow’s Sun front page for instance), Labour clearly regarded her departure as an essential act of damage limitation.
As I said earlier, Thornberry’s post, with its tone of disdain for “white van man”, aptly demonstrated the split between Labour’s “beer drinkers” and its metropolitan “wine drinkers” (see Tim Bale’s recent Staggers post for more on this tension). In this struggle for the party’s soul, Ed Miliband’s team clearly felt he couldn’t be seen to side with former. Labour will hope that the short-term damage inflicted by her resignation will be outweighed by the longer-term damage avoided.
A Labour spokesman told me: “The one thing which Ed is absolutely determined to do is to make sure that we have a chance of being a one-term opposition. He’s absolutely determined that we do not do anything to jeopardise that. Emily came to that conclusion as well.”
Here is her statement:
Earlier today I sent a tweet which has caused offence to some people. That was never my intention and I have apologised. However I will not let anything distract from Labour’s chance to win the coming general election. I have therefore tonight told Ed Miliband I will resign from the shadow cabinet.