Emily Thornberry "regrets" conference decision on Brexit

The shadow foreign secretary wanted the Labour Party to back an unequivocal pro-remain stance, against the wishes of the leadership.

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Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, has said that she regrets the decision of the Labour Party conference to reject composite motion 13, which called on Labour to “campaign energetically for a public vote and to stay in the EU in that referendum.” Speaking at a New Statesman Labour Party conference fringe event sponsored by the think tank UK in a Changing Europe, Thornberry, who is the bookies' favourite to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, was asked by Professor Anand Menon if she stood by previous assertions that not adopting an unequivocally pro-remain stance would harm the party’s electoral chances.

“I’ve seen the polling… The party has made a decision and I regret that,” she said. “The internal polling shows that Jo Swinson is more of a threat to us than Nigel Farage...It’s because of loyalty to Jeremy…I want Jeremy in number 10 and I want a Labour government more than anything else…that’s why I have the position I do.”

There are widespread fears that Labour’s vote is being squeezed between the opposing poles of the Brexit Party and Conservative Party, with their clear pro-Brexit stances, and the Liberal Democrats, who back a revocation of Article 50, and threaten Labour’s dominance in remain-voting cities. Labour’s current position is to negotiate a Brexit deal – likely one involving permanent customs union membership, dynamic alignment on environmental standards and workers rights, and a “close relationship” with the single market – to be either ratified or rejected in favour of remain in a referendum.

Seen as a victory for the leadership, the failure of composite motion 13 to pass at conference means that the party will not yet commit to backing remain. Corbyn has refused to be drawn on which side he would support and looks likely to adopt a position of neutrality. Thornberry, along with the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, and Corbyn’s long-time ally and shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, are seen as having moved away from the leadership on this issue in recent weeks.

The 2017 Labour manifesto committed the party to respecting the result of the referendum. “Labour’s policy has moved on hugely in the last few months,” Thornberry told conference delegates. “I’m proud that those of us who’ve been campaigning for that have been successful…. We cannot leave without a referendum… If the British people vote to leave again we will have to accept it, but I will always vote for remain.”The shadow foreign secretary described the Liberal Democrat’s decision to back a straight cancellation of the Brexit process without a second referendum as “populist nonsense”. 

Halfway through the fringe, news of today’s Supreme Court ruling filtered into the room, prompting an outbreak of applause. “This old Etonian believes he is above the law… above the rule of law,” Thornberry said.

Asked whether she thought the next Labour leader should be a woman, Thornberry emphatically told the audience that “there is no vacancy” at the top of the party. “With other parties having a female leader is almost like a gimmick...Labour is different. We’ve seen a real feminisation of the party at all levels… We are now genuinely a feminist party.” She added: “I think it’s likely the next leader will be a woman but it’s for the members to decide.”