This was meant to be the moment that the heat returned to David Cameron. Labour had long looked forward to the Rochester by-election as an event that would finally make Tory turmoil the story again after the party’s worst period since the general election. But Emily Thornberry’s ill-judged tweet of a home bearing St George’s flags, and her enforced departure, means that opposition MPs are grim-faced today.
The shadow attorney general’s effective sacking was regarded by Ed Miliband’s team as a ruthless act of damage limitation. The view was that she needed to go in order to prevent a prolonged period of media bloodletting that could have left the Islington MP fatally weakened. Her departure was also intended as a signal that the party will not tolerate “Mrs Duffy”-style incidents that confirm the impression of it as metropolitan, elitist and tone-deaf to voters’ concerns. One shadow cabinet minister summed up the question as “Are we for working people or not?” The decision has been welcomed by those MPs, such as Simon Danzcuk (who told me that the incident was “much worse than the Gillian Duffy moment”) and Ian Austin, who have long lobbied for a tougher stance on immigration.
But it has prompted despair and outrage elsewhere in the party. One senior MP told me that it was further evidence of a tendency to “panic” in Miliband’s office. Critics argue that the party poured petrol on the flames when it could have ridden out what was another Twitter storm. Some also regard Thornberry’s ousting as an unconscionable act of disloyalty towards a friend and ally, who was one of the first MPs to back Miliband for the leadership. They fear that by forcing her resignation the party has ended up alienating both conservative and liberal voters.
At the end of Labour’s “immigration week”, the Thornberry affair has sharpened the divide between those MPs who believe the party needs to dramatically reposition itself to win back working class voters and those who fear that its new rhetoric is perpetuating Ukip’s myths and staining its progressive reputation (fuelling the ascent of the Greens in the process). With the tanks of Farage’s “People’s Army” encroaching ever more on Labour territory, the tensions will continue to grow.