Two years ago, when Emily Thornberry was forced to resign from Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet over her white van tweet, few would have expected her to return to the frontbench. Today, she led her party at Prime Minister’s Questions. Jeremy Corbyn has appointed his Islington neighbour as his stand-in when he or Theresa May is absent. With both the Prime Minister and Philip Hammond abroad, Thornberry faced David Lidington, the hitherto obscure Leader of the Commons.
Thornberry, a former barrister, arrived with a reputation as a strong parliamentary performer. It was one enhanced today. From her first question, the shadow foreign secretary was in control. “Does the government want the UK to remain part of the customs union?” As Thornberry anticipated, Lidington was unable to say, merely promising “additional clarity about our position at the earliest opportunity”.
Rather than relenting (as Corbyn sometimes does), Thornberry pressed her advantage. “Does he still agree with himself?” she asked after quoting a doom-laden warning from the pro-Remain Lidington. “There has been a referendum since February,” he retorted, warning that it would be harmful to the “national interest” to provide a “detailed exposition of our negotiating position”. With pantomime theatricality, an exasperated Thornberry replied: “Dear, oh dear. We’re not asking for details, we’re asking about a central plant of the negotiation.”
When she turned to the status of the Irish border, Lidington was similarly hamstrung. “There is good will on all those sides to try and reach a solution,” was all he could promise. The Leader of the House wasn’t hiding the answers; he doesn’t know the answers.
Thornberry’s line of attack was aided by rare clarity on the Labour side. The opposition, she declared, supported customs union membership. By contrast, “we have a government that cannot tell us the plan because they do not have a plan.” Thornberry ended by once again torturing Lidington with his own words: “In February, the Leader of the House said what he was hearing about from the Leave campaign was confusing, contradictory nonsense. My final question is this: are we hearing anything different from this government today?” Lidington’s retort fell flat: “[Labour’s] quarrelling like Mutiny on the Bounty re-shot by the Carry On team”. From the gallery above, Thornberry’s spin doctor Damian McBride smiled at a job well done.
The odds on Lidington succeeding May are unlikely to have shortened. But Thornberry, a Corbyn loyalist, has shown why it would be hasty to write her off.