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14 January 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:33am

Why Emily Thornberry’s place in the Labour leadership race should worry her opponents

The shadow foreign secretary’s presence on the ballot paper should be of particular concern to Keir Starmer and Jess Phillips.

By Ailbhe Rea

At 1.55pm yesterday afternoon Emily Thornberry rushed through the social hub of parliament, Portcullis House, almost running in her high-heeled boots, as she spoke breathlessly down the phone. It was 35 minutes before the nominations deadline for candidates to become Labour leader, Clive Lewis had withdrawn minutes before, and by the official count, Thornberry had not yet made it to 22 MP/MEP nominations.

But Thornberry’s expression provided an update that Twitter couldn’t. By the huge smile on her face, the occasional rushed laughter as she made that quick dash across the main meeting-place in Westminster,  and by the spring in her step, it was clear she knew she had pulled it off. Thirty-five minutes later, with the backing of some of Lewis’s nominees and others who had promised her their support earlier, she made it over the line.

What does Thornberry’s addition mean for the race? On a technical level, it complicates Jess Phillips’s route to the ballot. Both Phillips and Thornberry are likely to need to get on to the ballot via CLP (local party) nominations, of which they will need 33; they will now be competing against each other for support.  

As Stephen has written, this is the first time the party has used this nomination system, so there is an element of the unknown. Going by precedent, local parties have tended to give simply an accurate reflection of who the membership supports, but under the new system, it is possible that CLPs will decide to widen the field by nominating candidates who don’t necessarily rank top among their membership, since the members will have a final vote in the next round anyway.  Given relatively low levels of support for both candidates in the party’s grassroots, Thornberry and Phillips will be hoping that CLPs pick the “broaden the field approach”. The other three candidates, including Lisa Nandy, are most likely to make it onto the ballot via the trade unions and affiliates route.

Beyond the technical complications of Thornberry entering the field, it adds the fascinating possibility that the contest over the coming weeks will see a real change in the candidates’ current standings. Thornberry has had a weak start, but is a consummate politician with the potential to turn this race around more than any other candidate. Her presence in the race should be of particular concern, in my view, to Keir Starmer and again to Jess Phillips.

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Starmer has had an early lead over Thornberry and, thanks to a well-organised and highly impressive start to his campaign, has developed a “rolling stone” effect,  scooping up support that might otherwise have been Thornberry’s. Some might disagree with the following assessment, but Thornberry has genuine charisma (which means she annoys some people, as well as charming others). As the most experienced politician in the race with a decade’s more experience in parliament than Starmer and arguably more personal appeal (as well as more baggage), she could rock his campaign as she gets going. If members want to press the “experienced, leaderly, can win” button while retaining the Corbyn policy programme, the presence in the race of another articulate, Remainy, London lawyer from a disadvantaged background rocks the tacit assumption that Starmer is the only option for that outcome.

With very different styles and policy platforms, Thornberry isn’t really trampling on Rebecca Long-Bailey or Lisa Nandy’s turf. Rather, the other candidate who might be in trouble is Jess Phillips. Much of Phillips’s pitch rests on her personal appeal; her no-nonsense, bolshy approach and charisma that could see her hold Boris Johnson to account while connecting with voters. In writing, that looks rather like Thornberry’s own appeal, except only one of them has a track record to point to of taking the fight to the Tory leader. Johnson was regularly humiliated in his role as foreign secretary, to the extent that there is near consensus that he was one of the worst foreign secretaries the UK has ever had. Utterly incompetent and nearly forced to resign: some may argue he did that on his own, but we actually already know what Johnson looks like when he is shadowed by Emily Thornberry. With a pitch that centres so much on her potential ability to scrutinise Johnson, Team Phillips may not be best pleased at having to compete with someone who has already done that at the despatch box.

By sharing some of their attributes and outflanking the others on experience, the shadow foreign secretary forces the other candidates to up their game, which is no bad thing in this historically important contest. She might not make it through the next round, but she’ll add some welcome grit in the oyster in the meantime.

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