Emily Thornberry is tucking into a gravy-drenched liver special at a greasy spoon café near King’s Cross. It’s probably not the first image that springs to mind when people think of the shadow attorney-general, who, at least on paper, is the epitome of the so-called Islington elite. But then little about her is typical.
Thornberry, 62, has worked as a human rights lawyer, but also as a cleaner and barmaid while resitting her O-levels as a teenager. Her childhood was split between a comfortable family life in Surrey and, after her father left when she was aged seven, poverty so dire that the family’s cats had to be put down to save money.
She is one of Labour’s most colourful characters: celebrated as an icon by the LGBT community, vicious in attacking the Tories, disarmingly frank, fun and, as her awkward support for a second Brexit referendum in 2019 showed, a difficult woman when she chooses to be.
We are reflecting on Nicola Sturgeon, who resigned as SNP leader in February. “We were on a beach in Orkney,” Thornberry says, recalling the centenary commemoration of the Battle of Jutland in 2016. “And I was completely stunned. It was freezing, windy, there was sea spray and she [Sturgeon] wasn’t wearing any tights. I mean, she looked great, but no tights. I thought, ‘She is a bloody hard woman.’ ” She pauses to giggle.
“On a personal level I have a lot of respect for her. But she had an opportunity to take the Nats into a wider arena and focus on the bread-and-butter issues for Scotland and just didn’t really. Everything came back to constitutional issues and that is a blind alley.”
Thornberry has had to be tough herself. Failing to make the membership ballot in the 2020 Labour leadership election was a bruising experience, and years of factional warfare within the party have been testing for loyalists such as her.
Her north London constituency, Islington South and Finsbury, is sandwiched between Corbyn’s Islington North – the former leader now sits as an independent and has been barred from standing again for Labour – and Starmer’s Holborn and St Pancras. How does Thornberry feel about Corbyn’s treatment?
“I find the whole thing very sad. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t,” she says. “But it has been made clear to Jeremy what was expected of him. In the end it is all about the movement and getting a Labour victory. It’s not about an individual. Jeremy and I were friends for years and I made it perfectly clear to him what I thought he should do and he just wouldn’t do it.”
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She would not go further: “Anything I have to say to Jeremy, I will say it privately. It’s all been hard enough without me condemning people on a personal basis.”
With Labour around 20 percentage points clear of the Conservatives in the polls, Thornberry much prefers to look ahead to the general election expected at the end of next year. “All the Tories can do for the next 18 months is hope that something turns up. They can’t get out of this death slide,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“I’m very much of the generation that experienced 1992,” she adds, recalling Labour’s surprise defeat in that year’s election. “And we did think that we were going to win. I had friends over, we had a celebratory meal in anticipation of a Labour government. We had red food – tomatoes, strawberries, red wine, edam cheese, trout – and we just sat there and watched it all fall apart. It really haunted us.”
In 1997 Thornberry was part of a Labour HQ operation known as “the D team”: D for the doubtful voters Tony Blair was targeting. “Everyone in ’97 worked to a script,” she says, before leaning in and conspiratorially adding: “But we were allowed to be unscripted and would ring people in marginal seats. We were the secret weapon team. And we didn’t know it at the time but on the night we won in some of those seats by 7,000 votes, but I was still thinking ‘oh my god’ all the time.”
Thornberry was first elected to parliament in 2005 with a majority of just 484. That has since grown to over 17,000, but she retains the nervous mindset of a politician fighting a marginal seat. “People can switch,” she insists.
Nor does she accept my premise when I ask whether the atmosphere now feels like 1992 or 1997. Instead, she compares the 2019 election to 1900, the “khaki election” when the Conservatives achieved a landslide victory because, it is widely thought, voters believed the Second Boer War had been won. The conflict continued for another two years. In 1906 people “switched completely” and the Liberals enjoyed their own landslide.
“People were writing at the time [in 1900] that the Liberals were finished and the Tories were the natural party of government,” says Thornberry. “The Tories won a single-issue election, then they started falling apart and took people for granted. And I said after the last election that the Tories will do that now, and that one issue is Brexit.”
Thornberry was an ardent Remainer but has put aside any notion of Labour campaigning to rejoin the EU or its single market. “It feels like there may be a new political generation at a later stage that may think again about this, but not now and not for the foreseeable future. We make the deal as good as it can be.”
We turn to one of the more difficult issues for Labour: reform of the Gender Recognition Act and self-identification. Thornberry talks passionately about the subject, not least because she has a cousin who is a trans man.
“There are things in [the current legislation] which are frankly inhumane. The biggest example is you need to have your husband or wife’s permission before you can change gender. I mean, that’s really humiliating.
“The difficulty begins when you’re constantly talking about trans people as being the exception or constantly focusing on the margins, like the rapist who pretends that they are female. The vast, vast majority of trans people are just unhappy with how they were born and are trying to find their proper identity and express themselves and their essence.”
Thornberry, who fears her cousin will be targeted for abuse, clearly despises the divisive way some Conservative MPs discuss trans people: “It makes me angry that people are so intolerant. The idea of political point-scoring on the back of the most vulnerable in our country is, I think, frankly shocking. It’s like stoking racism for political benefit. It’s not a thing that should ever be forgiven. We should never forget and never forgive.”
Thornberry has served in the shadow cabinets of Ed Miliband, Corbyn and Starmer. She portrays her current boss as keen on maintaining discipline. “Keir is very much in charge so we all do get there on time,” she says. “We don’t speak for any longer than he says we have time for and he sets the tone.”
She jokes: “I recently got into a spat with Wes [Streeting, the shadow health secretary] because he brings fruit into shadow cabinet and eats apples in a very macho way. Now we only ever have soft fruit.
“Peter Kyle [the shadow Northern Ireland secretary] sits next to me and is always taking the mickey. If there are any undercurrents, I’m not aware of it.
“I think what’s interesting is there are a lot of women in the room and none of us are shrinking violets.”
The weekly shadow cabinet meeting is kept strictly to 25 minutes. “There is a control to it, which I think is important in a room full of big personalities. He’s clear about what he wants and it’s in contrast. When Jeremy was leader it was obviously a very different vibe but it was also difficult to know where we were going, or why, or what was going to happen next.
“I think I’m probably a bit like Keir. I like to know what is happening.”
Labour had a choice of four female candidates, including Thornberry, at the last leadership election but still chose the only man on the ballot. Her response is relatively philosophical.
“I think feminism in the Labour Party has been deep and real and organic. Most local Labour parties are run by women. We have a much larger number of women councillors, we have half of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It’s a wave. It is just a matter of time.
“And if there is a leader it won’t be a kind of a gimmick. It will be a natural expression of the Labour Party.
“The culture in the Tories is that it tends to be the exception, for example Margaret Thatcher. You remember the photographs of her, a woman, on her own with a male cabinet.”
Thornberry was forced to resign from Miliband’s shadow cabinet in 2014 when she tweeted a picture of a home draped in England flags with the caption “image from #Rochester”. She rejects accusations that Labour is viewed as a middle-class party and points out that while her own constituency may be wealthy in parts it has many pockets of deprivation. “My own experiences are such that I’m well aware of our unequal society, having a mum who relied on benefits, having had free school meals myself,” she says.
Before we part, Thornberry tells me that “outriders” such as the Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson are “playing distraction” and “saying things Sunak wants to say but can’t”. She adds that a combination of the cost-of-living crisis, failing public services and 13 years in office means the Conservatives face formidable obstacles.
“I haven’t for a long time had a conversation with people about how the Tory party could improve or where they are going. People have just had enough, whichever part of the country they are in,” she says.