Why is Emily Thornberry struggling to secure enough Labour MP nominations?

The shadow foreign secretary has been the main victim of Keir Starmer’s momentum and is still hindered by her past shadow cabinet sacking. 

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A year or six months ago, it would have been hard to imagine a situation in which Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, ran to be the leader of the Labour Party and didn’t make it onto the final ballot. Now, with only nine declared nominations before the deadline on Monday evening, it looks as though she won’t even secure the support of 22 MPs/MEPs to make it past the first round. So what has gone wrong?

The consensus among MPs and staffers seems to be that Thornberry is the victim of Keir Starmer’s success. “Keir stitched it up from so early on,” suggests one Labour MP who is supportive of Thornberry’s bid. As has been said of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s shaky campaign so far, some Labour MPs suggest that Thornberry was genuinely focused on the general election, without a slick operation ready to hit the ground running in the event of a leadership campaign.

But it seems that a debacle in the early days of the campaign, when Thornberry was one of the few candidates to have formally declared, may have damaged the shadow foreign secretary more than has been appreciated in the weeks since. Caroline Flint, who had just lost her seat as the Labour MP for Don Valley in the election, alleged that Thornberry had once said to a fellow MP in a Leave-voting seat that she was “glad my constituents aren’t as stupid as yours”. Thornberry appeared to deal with the matter quite successfully in a string of TV interviews in which she condemned Flint for “making up s***” about her, adding that she would be taking legal action against the former MP. 

But the incident appears to have rekindled pre-existing concerns among the PLP about Thornberry as a potential leader. It was an unfortunate reminder of the white van photo from Rochester that prompted her sacking from Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet in 2014 and of the wider difficulties of selling an Islington-based, pro-Remain Labour leader to a divided country. PLP members admit privately that Thornberry is a “Marmite” figure, occasionally prone to making a barbed comment or telling a joke that lands badly. (The same people do say, however, that she “has the ability to listen” to criticism to a greater extent than some of her opponents for the leadership.)

With these concerns about Thornberry rekindled, Starmer, Thornberry’s most similar opponent in many ways, has gained momentum with an unexpectedly slick campaign. There’s a “rolling stone” effect with Starmer now, as MPs rush to back a winning horse. “People see which side their bread is buttered,” as one MP puts it: as well as genuine support for Starmer, there is an understanding that an MP's chances of a shadow ministerial position are heightened by loyalty to the eventual leader from early on in the campaign.

“You can tell the feeling of a race,” remarks one Labour MP. As Starmer builds momentum, Long-Bailey unites the PLP Corbynite vote behind her and Lisa Nandy captures a moment, the feeling simply isn't there in the PLP for Emily Thornberry.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman