Labour's Brexit policy, 2010 – 2015
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): In 2013, was there much in the way of a debate in the Shadow Cabinet about whether to support a referendum, and was there any internal disagreement about it?
Emily Thornberry (ET): No. I think we were clear that we weren’t in favour of a referendum at all. In fact, we stood on a general election platform, saying that we weren’t in favour of a referendum and that we didn’t think that there was any need for it. Actually, we were quite firm on that. Ed Miliband was quite firm on it, and I supported him on that. I thought it was quite brave, but I supported him on it.
It was, kind of, a dividing line in my constituency, obviously, where we had a Lib Dem threat because they would make a big thing about having a referendum. So, locally, I had lots of discussions with constituents as to why it was that we weren’t in favour of a referendum.
UKICE: When you say, ‘Brave,’ do you mean that in the ‘Yes Minister’ sense of the term?
ET: No, because when they say, ‘Brave,’ they mean, ‘We don’t agree with you.’ I did agree with him, so, no.
UKICE: Were you surprised that David Cameron had gone that far? Did you think, looking at the Conservatives, that for them a referendum was becoming inevitable?
ET: Yes. It was all about holding the Tory Party together. That’s all it was. That was the only way that they could do it. They didn’t think they were going to win the election and so it didn’t cost them anything.
They thought they weren’t going to win the election outright. They could at least hold the party together throughout that election. If they fell apart before the general election, then they’d lose even more seats. They didn’t want to lose too many seats, so they decided to put into their manifesto a referendum, and we said, ‘No,’ and the liberals said, ‘Yes.’
UKICE: Do you think the fact that Labour at that stage thought it was going to win the general election informed what Ed Miliband did on the referendum? Was there a degree of confidence that led him to think more about what a Labour government would or wouldn’t do, rather than actually choosing the policy which might be most electorally effective?
ET: I think certainly we thought that we would win, and we were being as grown up as we possibly could be, as responsible as we possibly could be. We weren’t making any promises that we couldn’t deliver on. Yes, we weren’t being at all reckless, I don’t think.
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Were you surprised that there wasn’t more talk about the positions of the candidates on the EU in the leadership contest in 2015?
Emily Thornberry (ET): I can’t really remember, actually. I don’t think I can give you a proper answer on that. I can’t really remember any conversation about it, so I can’t remember whether people were surprised or not. Do you know what I mean? I think there was so much else going on, to be quite frank. I mean this major upheaval that the party was going through.
I remember I supported Yvette (Cooper). Yvette and I didn’t really see eye to eye on Europe, but I still supported her. That’s the only memory I have, really, of the leadership election with regard to Europe.
UKICE: Of course, post-referendum, there was a lot of criticism of the Labour leadership for its campaigning – or the perception of a lack of campaigning – during the referendum. Do you think that was fair?
ET: I think it’s just typical, frankly. I think it was just absolutely typical. How long has it been since we’ve been in power? Yet everything is always our fault. It’s just extraordinary. It really is, and we allow this to happen. I think that has got more to do with the way in which the Tories dominate the newsprint and the way that newsprint sets the agenda for the national media.
I think there was also, for broadcast media, people within my party who were using it as an excuse to set in motion an agenda that they had, and which they were waiting for an excuse to enact. I think there was a conspiracy to chuck out Jeremy (Corbyn) that was going to kick into action after the local council elections, and we did better in the local council elections than was expected. Then there was the referendum and so the plan that hadn’t been hatched was then hatched about going for Jeremy afterwards. The excuse was, ‘It’s his fault that we lost the referendum.’
It’s ridiculous because Jeremy just campaigned in the way that Jeremy always did: not going on the national media, going up and down the country, addressing meetings. People got used to that. That was what he did later on in the general election, but it wasn’t because of a lack of commitment on his part. It was just that’s how he did things.
UKICE: Do you think his ‘seven out of ten’ comment and a slightly lukewarm tone towards the EU was an issue in what was, after all, a binary campaign?
ET: I think that Jeremy’s selling point was that he was authentic. If he’d said, ‘Ten out of ten,’ nobody would have believed it, and it wouldn’t have been terribly helpful. Anyway, it reflected, I think, the public’s view.
I don’t think people’s view was, ‘Brexit is wonderful. Europe is wonderful.’ It wasn’t like that. I think we needed to have a bit more of a grown-up conversation, saying, ‘It isn’t perfect. There are things that we would change…’
Then that was what our campaign was, was to stay in the European Union but to reform it. Therefore, seven out of ten is the right number. I think I would have said the same, and I’m supposed to be one of the red in tooth and claw pro-Europeans.
UKICE: What did you think of the Remain campaign more generally?
ET: I thought it was rubbish. I think the other thing to bear in mind is the Labour leadership of the Remain campaign was not Jeremy Corbyn. It was elsewhere, and led by people who weren’t exactly the most proactive, frankly, in the way they were campaigning. I feel a bit defensive of Jeremy when it comes to this, because I just think that it’s a big lie that has been hatched and been allowed to run around the world.
I remember I went on a bus, at one stage, with a whole lot of Labour MPs. At that point, I was talking to them and they said that they weren’t campaigning in their constituencies, because they didn’t want to piss off their constituents, but they were happy to go to other people’s constituencies and campaign in those. It was at that point I realised we were going to lose. They just didn’t believe that we were going to lose. Nobody believed that we were going to lose.
I remember being at the National Policy Forum and I was under pressure. I was Shadow Defence Secretary at the time, and I was supposed to be coming out with a Defence Review I think about five days after the referendum. I went up before this executive and they said to me, ‘So, where’s your review? When are you going to launch it? What’s happening?’
I said, ‘Look, guys,’ I said, ‘I’m going to wait until the referendum. Then I’ll tell you whether I’m going to launch it or not. because, if we lose the referendum, things are going to be so different that, frankly, any Defence Review will be out of date as soon as it’s published. So, I’m holding back on it until after Brexit.’
They went, ‘You’re just making up excuses, Emily. You’re just making up excuses. You just don’t want to publish. Of course we’re not going to lose the referendum.’ And I said, ‘We are. I’m afraid we are.’
I remember being in Islington and, on the day of the referendum, putting stickers on people. Everybody wore the stickers – everybody. It was just like, as fast as I possibly could, I was putting stickers on people, and there was one guy I went up to and I said, ‘Do you want a sticker? It’s the fashion item of choice in Islington today.’ He said, ‘I would wear it, except I live in Peterborough and I’ve got to go home. I’m not going to wear that when I get home.’
I just thought, ‘Yes, we are going to lose.’ Everybody living in Islington thinks we’re going to win, we’re going to absolutely romp it, but that’s because they’re not talking to anybody from outside of Islington.
UKICE: Do you think there was anything that the Remain campaign could have done differently?
ET: Yes. The problems were organisational. The way that we campaign within the Labour Party is we identify who the Labour voters are, then we go and get them to come out and vote. Obviously, voting Remain or voting Leave was something which cut across our voter base, so it was quite difficult for us to do that sort of campaigning.
What we needed was much more of an air war, but also to be doing some bright and confident campaigning which would be broader brush, which is much more about street stalls. The Leave lot had stalls in small towns, in market towns up and down the country, everywhere. We just didn’t.
Also, it was partly because felt the atmosphere was too nasty. I mean, really, that was what people were saying: ‘I don’t want to go. People are nasty to us.’ I remember speaking to a European group. I spoke to them, I had meetings with them and I said, ‘You have got to get out. You have got to come to Britain. You have got to do more work..’
It could have happened in any European country that a referendum was called and it would be lost. It isn’t just us. We are the unfortunate ones that this has happened, that we’ve had a leadership that has allowed it. But, if it had happened in any other country around Europe, they would have lost, too.
And I told them: ‘You know that. I know that. Our European brothers and sisters have got to Get out there and talk to people, turn on the charm. Talk about why Europe is important. Show that you don’t have two heads.’
UKICE: Just thinking back to the day after, when you woke up, if you went to sleep, can you remember how you felt when you heard the result?
ET: Yes, I felt a sense of grief, profound grief, as if someone had died. I was very, very low. I just didn’t know what the hell we were going to do next.
In fact, I was in the television studios when David Dimbleby said, ‘Yes, we’re out.’ They’ve got this studio out in the middle of nowhere, where they do Strictly Come Dancing, and I was out there. I remember I was waiting in the wings to go on, and Dimbleby said, ‘That’s it, we’re out.’ Then I was on straight afterwards and it was really, really difficult. I was on with. Andrea Leadsom. The two of us are on immediately afterwards, and she’s saying, ‘Rejoice, rejoice.’ I just thought, ‘Fuck. I’ve got to stop myself crying. I don’t want to cry on national television.’
The path to the 2017 general election
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): The policy of the Labour Party at the time, I think Jeremy Corbyn said, was that Article 50 should be triggered the day after a vote.
Emily Thornberry (ET): Yes. He didn’t tell me about that. That came as a bit of a surprise. That was his and Seumas’s (Milne) wheeze.
UKICE: Do you know what his thinking was behind that?
ET: The conversations that I had with Jeremy on that issue were not as detailed. It was just like, ‘For God’s sake, can’t do that. Don’t be ridiculous.’ We didn’t get into the details.
UKICE: But then, when the Government needed to legislate to trigger Article 50, after the Miller case, Labour backed that. Was there ever any disagreement about whether you should back that?
ET: My view was, once we lost the referendum, that we had to. I was Shadow Brexit Secretary for a few months, if you remember, after the rebellion. The first thing I did was make clear that I accepted the result. That was important because I’m a democrat more than anything else.
Even if I think that it’s an act of self-harm, it’s what the public had said that they wanted to do, but what I wanted was, whatever the deal was, we needed to have another injection of democracy. Just because we’d had a referendum and we’d lost it, we hadn’t just handed over our country to the Tories to do whatever they wanted with it. For a long time, I used the phrase ‘an injection of democracy’.
I remember going to Europe, going over to Brussels, and meeting some of the MEPs, who were really into what was going to happen with Brexit. I said, ‘Why are you so on this? You don’t have any power?’ They said, ‘Yes, we do. We have a vote.’ At that point – it was that summer – I thought, ‘That’s what we should have. We should have a vote. We should have a vote in Parliament, one way or the other, on the deal itself. That’s what we should do. Whatever deal they come back with, we should have a vote on it.’ It was either that or it was to be a general election, or it was to be a referendum.
So, I did that, and I also did the 170 questions for the government on Brexit because that lined up with the number of days, I think it was, that were left before Article 50 would be triggered: ‘Answer a question a day until we leave.’ They just wrote back and said they weren’t going to answer any of them. In fact, they still haven’t answered them. If they had, then maybe we’d be in a better position in terms of knowing what sort of deal we were going to get, because they at least would have thought it through.
Those are the things that I did. Then we had to, in my view, go ahead with Article 50 because we were democrats, but we had to make sure that we came back to the public in some way – either a general election, or a vote in Parliament, or a referendum – to have a sign-off on whatever deal it was that they agreed in the end.
They had to know that there had to be some sort of democratic accountability. They weren’t going to be able to just deliver some bit of old nonsense, which, of course, given now we’re in a position where how long have we got – five weeks or something – and we still don’t even know what the deal looks like? We certainly won’t get an opportunity to scrutinise it, let alone vote on it. But that’s where we are. That’s where we’ve got to.
Actually, the so-called ‘injection of democracy’ was the general election that took place this time last year, which we should never have had – which we should never have had, and I said we shouldn’t have. I said that we were getting goaded into agreeing to a general election. We should never have done that, because it was only ever going to be a single-issue election.
Our position wasn’t sufficiently clear for us to get anywhere with it. We were going to get mashed, which is why the Lib Dems and the Scots Nats wanted to have a general election, because they wanted to eat a bit of Labour, and the Tories wanted to kill us. We just allowed that to happen. I made it perfectly clear in these terms, in the Shadow Cabinet, that that’s what I thought, and in a letter to Jeremy, and privately to Jeremy, but they didn’t listen.
UKICE: In 2017 do you think that Labour’s ambivalent position on Brexit helped the party do better than it was expected to during that campaign?
ET: Was it ambivalent? What do you think our position was in 2017?
UKICE: That you were supportive, you’d basically voted to trigger Article 50, and that you were waiting for the government to do a deal.
ET: And that we wanted to have an injection of democracy on the deal itself.
Yes. That seems to me to be that’s the right position to have. You have to. You can’t have a referendum and then say, ‘We’re not going to pay any attention to what you say.’ You can’t have that. You’ve got to go, ‘Okay, this is what the public have decided. We, as politicians, we have to do as we’re told. We have to do everything that we can to make sure that we get as good a deal as possible.’
But we should also then put that back to the public and say, ‘Right, what do you want? Is this what you wanted? Is this what you voted for, because it seems to us to be a million miles away from what you were promised during the referendum? But listen, hey, it’s up to you. If you decide that you want to go ahead with this deal, then fine.’ That’s what our position was. What’s wrong with that?
UKICE: Do you think that Brexit helped the Labour Party in the 2017 election?
ET: I don’t think so. I don’t remember it really being discussed that much. Was it discussed that much? I thought that it was about an awful lot of other things. I thought the essence of it was an anti-austerity general election, that it was about there being – that there can be – another way.
For us, it was about positivity. It was about an alternative vision. It was about what Britain could be, and about positivity. It was a great election because of all of those things. For me, that was what it was about. I don’t remember discussing Brexit very much. We had our position on Brexit.
Labour's Brexit policy, June 2017 – June 2019
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): So, the results come back in 2017. Was there a point then at which you thought, ‘We could actually push the Government a little bit further on Brexit,’ or actually encourage Theresa May to come and talk to Labour about, perhaps, pivoting from the very hard Brexit that she was envisaging before the election?
Emily Thornberry (ET): Yes, we tried. We did try. We made the offer. We did say we were more than happy to talk to her, and all of that, but she just wouldn’t have it. That was her choice. If she’d been a bit less partisan about it, then, you know…
Her problem was she had a general election, thinking, I think, that she could bolster up the middle ground for her so that she could basically sell out the hard Brexiteers. Instead, what happens is that she effectively loses the election, although technically not, and so she then has a choice: she can either have a deal with us and get a soft Brexit, or she can just get dragged over to the right and to the nutters, and have a hard Brexit. That’s the choice that she made.
She could have worked with us but she wouldn’t, so fine. Fine, so that’s what her position was, so we then put down our tests. We said, ‘This is what a Brexit ought to look like.’ I remember I did Prime Minister’s Questions, where I said, basically, ‘We, on this side of the House, believe that we should be in a customs union.’
It may not technically or entirely have been our agreed policy at that moment, but we were pretty close to it and by then we’d made a statement on a customs union. Obviously the Single Market had all kinds of problems attached to it, but a customs union really shouldn’t have. A customs union shouldn’t have been a problem, apart from this idea that we were going to be some great buccaneering nation that was going to go round the world, making lots of brand new trade deals. How has that gone?
UKICE: When you say, Emily, that there are problems with the Single Market, does that go beyond having to accept free movement to other aspects of the Single Market?
ET: I think free movement was the big one. There were others, but the big one was freedom of movement. Getting the Labour Party to agree a common position on that at that moment – or any political party to agree a common position at that moment – probably would have been quite hard.
UKICE: Were you closely involved in designing the Brexit tests?
ET: I don’t remember. I don’t remember, so perhaps I wasn’t, because I can’t remember. I used to have – we used to have – conversations because we had this Brexit sub-committee and so Keir (Starmer) and I were fairly aligned throughout those meetings. When we knew that there was a push on, we would make sure that we had a common position on it.
I don’t remember how much detail we may have been involved in, in relation to the tests. I’m a big believer in tests. Obviously Damian (McBride), who works with me, was involved in Gordon (Brown)’s tests as well, so I don’t know. I genuinely can’t remember one way or the other. We were in favour of tests, but I don’t remember whether I was involved in designing them specifically or whether it was just a, ‘Right, let’s have tests’ meeting rather than ‘What will the tests be?’
The one big bit of thinking I do remember was that it was important to quote the Tories back against themselves – things like the ‘exact same benefits’ were David Davis’s own words, so all we were asking them to do was deliver what they’d promised at different times, which of course they didn’t.
UKICE: Was your expectation, coming out of the 2017 election, that there would be another one soon? Was that the assumption?
UKICE: Was that Jeremy Corbyn’s assumption, as well?
ET: I don’t know. I think so, but I don’t know.
UKICE: Why were you so convinced?
ET: Because I didn’t think they could survive on that majority. They had so many different things going wrong. I thought: ‘How are they going to do it? How is she going to keep them together? A minority government, with the biggest decision that this country has had to make since the Second World War, how is it ever going to work? They had to have a general election. They had to have general election or a referendum. They had to resolve it through an injection of democracy.
UKICE: How did Theresa May do it, in your view?
ET: She didn’t.
UKICE: No, I guess. No, I suppose that’s true, but how did she do it for so long?
ET: She didn’t. She didn’t. She didn’t deal with the problem. She just remained in office and didn’t achieve anything. Everybody – well, not everybody, I mean so many people – seemed to think that she had some sort of grand plan. It always seemed to me to be perfectly obvious she had no plan at all. But it brings us back to the central problem, I think, of the British mentality when it comes to politics. Very often, we’re still too influenced by class and that, because the Tories were born to rule, people think that they’re good at it.
They’re not born to rule. They just think they’re born to rule. But, unfortunately, too many people in Britain think that. They just give them too much leeway. They just think that somehow or other they know what they’re doing because they’re upper class.
UKICE: If we can just backtrack quickly to the Brexit sub-committee. Can you tell us who was on it? Was it a united sub-committee?
ET: The Brexit sub-committee used to change, depending on what decision Seumas wanted it to come up with. It was outrageous. All kinds of people would turn up to this Brexit sub-committee. It was ridiculous. It was really ridiculous. There was a hard core, but all kinds of other people would be added for reasons that we couldn’t understand. But we didn’t have votes. We never seemed to have votes.
UKICE: The sub-committee came up with policy for the Parliamentary Party?
ET: Yes. It would go Brexit sub-committee, then the Shadow Cabinet, and then the Parliamentary Party.
On policy, we were going in the right direction. It just used to take far too long. We’d be on the verge of a breakthrough in terms of development of policy, and then we’d have another Brexit sub-committee meeting. All kinds of weird and wonderful people would turn up and so it would be held back again. Or, even worse, we would agree something, and then there’d be no announcement, and then it would get changed.
So what used to happen, was that we would make a decision. I didn’t trust Seumas to not change it, so I would write down exactly what it was that we’d agreed. Then I’d go onto Channel 4 – I did it twice – and announce it, so they couldn’t go back on it. They’d get furious with me.
But at the same time Keir would publish a three- or four-page kind of, ‘Right, this is where we are,’ sort of thing. That would take a little bit of time to come out. But then, of course, when I’m in the lobby and Channel 4 has caught me, all kinds of other news outlets would suddenly catch me, but the words I used were exactly the words that Keir would later use, so they really couldn’t say that I was doing anything wrong. I happened to be walking through the lobby and Channel 4 caught me, and then all these other outlets caught me, too.
UKICE: Who was furious with you? Was Keir furious with you?
ET: Keir was fine. No, the whole point was that I would go out and take the flak on this, but do it and keep pushing it, and Keir would back me up. It did tend to be that way round. They weren’t in a position to sack me, because I hadn’t done anything wrong. If we made a decision and I tell the media, what’s wrong with that?
It’s like the other time they were really furious with me, but again it wasn’t my fault – this really wasn’t my fault – was when we were making a decision about what our policy would be on a referendum, and it was first, whether we would have a referendum and then – if there was going to be a referendum – would one of the options be to Remain? That was what had been agreed at our Party Conference, but now there was a suggestion we might move away from that.
I can’t remember if it was exactly that but anyway, the point was that I was at hospital. My daughter was having an operation and they said that she’d be out in forty-five minutes. Three hours later, she still wasn’t out, and I really thought that she was going to die.
Then they told us that there was an emergency Shadow Cabinet meeting about this very issue, so at University College Hospital, sitting outside, chain smoking on my phone, I wrote a long email about what I thought about it, and said that I thought that we should have a vote on it, and that I was all for collective responsibility, but actually we should have a vote. Everybody should have their say because there were too many people who agreed with me who weren’t, frankly, coming out and saying it. We should have a vote, and that’s what I argued for in my email, and said my vote was yes to a referendum, and yes to Remain being on the ballot.
Then, of course, some bastard went and leaked the email, so then I was outed. Everybody knew what it was that I thought but I had been, kind of, toeing the line until that point.
They were furious at me as if I had engineered my daughter’s operation. But, once they realised that I had actually literally sent it from UCH, then they couldn’t say that it was just me being difficult.
I was very difficult. I really, really tried to keep to my central point, which was we should not be afraid to be pro-European but be clear that we are democrats. ‘Democrats’ means second referendum and/or a general election. But we needed to be clear, and we couldn’t have a general election if our position wasn’t clear. If we were trying to ride two horses, then a general election was not going to be a clear way of making a decision.
UKICE: I was just going just try and get a bit more detail from you just how difficult it was to deal with the issue of Brexit in that particular Shadow Cabinet. Just the Brexit issue a real running sore throughout in the Shadow Cabinet?
ET: Yes, it got out of hand. It got really out of hand. There were certain people who would always, whenever Brexit came up – and it did, a lot – do a rant. Always, there were three or four people and there would just be a rant. It didn’t really matter what you said, they would always come back with the same stuff.
We always had – always, always had – how the European Union stopped us from spending public money in the way that we wanted to in order to support the economy. It didn’t matter how often I said, ‘That’s just not right. Look at what France does. Look what Germany does. I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll get a European lawyer into the Shadow Cabinet to do a presentation,’ and then which they would all back off, but then the next week they’d come back and say the same thing again.
So, you’d just get it again and again, but then there was also a lot of, ‘You’re not from the North. You don’t understand.’ That used to come up a lot. Again, it didn’t matter how often I said, ‘The vast majority of Labour voters voted to remain in the European Union. You need to have those Remainers to continue to vote for you, topped up by some Leavers, in order for you to keep your seat. You have to understand that’s what all the internal polls are telling us. If we piss off the Remainers in the way that you want to, you will lose your seat.’
UKICE: Did the question of what party members thought come up, as well?
ET: Yes, of course. Yes.
UKICE: Was that equally unpersuasive for them, despite the fact that there was a lot of evidence to suggest that party members were very much on your side of the argument?
ET: But then, you see, we would get, ‘Yes, but the majority of party members are in London and the South East. They don’t represent my constituency. We’re the heartlands. We’re the heartlands of the Labour Party,’ all of that. We had a lot of that, as if the Labour Party can’t represent the whole country, as if heartland or traditional Labour voters can’t share the same views as my constituents. You know my constituents. My constituents, it seems, are not traditional Labour voters. What a load of bollocks.
UKICE: Okay. Can we just ask you about party conferences, because there were a couple of conferences in which the leadership clearly manipulated the agenda? It’s nothing new, obviously. It has been going on for decades. Was that the cause of arguments within the Shadow Cabinet, or was there not very much that you could do about that, really, because that was the Conference Arrangements Committee and certain people had that stitched up, essentially?
ET: No. It was done through negotiation, I think that would be true. There’s nothing to be gained from the party openly fighting. There’s nothing to be gained by that. You could always pray in aid the fact that the party membership was behind you. If we went to conference, we would get this passed. That would always help push things along.
UKICE: As long as you didn’t actually want to push it to a vote or to make that happen.
ET: Yes. Obviously, Keir’s famous compromise, his working through the night meeting to find a compromise. I don’t know whether he came to regret not having made the commitment firmer because, even if he had made it firmer, it would have been supported. But what he didn’t want was to cause unnecessary divisions in the Labour Party.
But there needed to be a certain amount of good faith in terms of what people knew had been promised in those meetings, even if it wasn’t in the text. I think that what used to drive him crazy was that people did know that other things had been promised that hadn’t been put in the text. You can’t agree something, then go back on it.
UKICE: What was your reaction when he went off script famously at the conference, where he said, Remain would be an option?
ET: It was very good, and there was some camaraderie amongst Shadow Cabinet speakers at conference when one of us succeeded in sneaking something past Seumas, who obviously insisted on vetting all the speeches and wasn’t above changing people’s autocues while they were speaking.
I had a difficult speech to make myself that afternoon, after Keir’s speech in the morning, when I was calling out the anti-semitism in the party, and with me doing that, and Keir doing his ad-lib, there was a bit of a sense we were taking more control of the agenda, and saying what needed to be said.
UKICE: Can you just talk us through in a bit more detail the 2019 conference and how the party ended up with that outcome? I’m assuming there were all sorts of manoeuvring going on in the background. Then it got quite heated. Can you just talk us through that process?
ET: It was really horrible. It was really horrible, and bitter, and fractious. I think that was the conference where, when I got up to make a speech, Unite walked out and so did GMB. Then I’m told that the women from GMB actually came back into the conference hall, and stood round the back and watched, but they’d been told to walk out.
We had really fallen out by that stage, and we’d had a big fight after conference when Len (McCluskey) tried to call a meeting and wanted me and Keir brought in to be told off. It was at the Leader’s Office, and we had the ‘Big Five’ unions, and various representatives, and so on.
I think the person organising the meeting thought, ‘It isn’t right to just have Keir and Emily brought in to be told off. Let’s have a wider group so it isn’t quite so pointed.’ So, there was a bigger group, but basically that was the point.
Yes, so the fight was pretty substantial. There was a group called ‘Love Socialism, Hate Brexit’ that I was involved with. Because one of the arguments always was, ‘You’re just using this as a tool with which to beat Jeremy,’ and I have to say I think some people were within the Labour Party, without a doubt. But I wasn’t. I wanted Jeremy to succeed, and the only way Jeremy could succeed, in my view, was by taking the path that I was pushing him on.
The ‘Love Socialism, Hate Brexit’ group was a group of Corbyn supporters who were pro-European and so I was involved with them. I did a bit of work getting them and some funders together, and we got some work going on with grassroots people within conference, doing leaflets and banners, and organising the demo and all of that sort of stuff that was going on behind the scenes.
But the unions basically out-organised us and, in the end, pulled the ‘You’ve got to be loyal to Jeremy’ card. ‘This motion is the one that you vote for if you’re loyal to Jeremy. If you’re not loyal Jeremy, then you vote for the other one. So, what could we do? What could we do?
If you see the debate, I think I spoke immediately after it and it was awful. It was all these big, aggressive men up on the platform, just giving it, yelling and intimidating. In the hall, it was intimidating, horrible – horrible, horrible, horrible.
UKICE: Len McCluskey actually spoke in that debate, didn’t he?
ET: Yes, but it wasn’t just Len. All kinds of people got up, but they were all of a type and they were basically saying, ‘You’ve got to do as you’re told.’ It was a nasty side of the Labour Party, I thought.
UKICE: Do you think, when it came to the membership, that when you got that ‘Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit’ dynamic, the former would always triumph over the latter?
ET: Yes. I think, when it came to the membership, in the end the membership felt, and people did feel really conflicted, but I think there was something about, ‘If Jeremy is under attack, we will support Jeremy.’ I think it was that. I think a lot of people had actually joined the Labour Party in order to support Jeremy and to protect him from attack. So I think that, if it was a choice between protecting Jeremy and doing what they thought was the right thing on Europe, they would protect Jeremy.
UKICE: How important was the Independent Group in triggering Labour’s shift towards a referendum?
ET: We had polling, the polling that I’d referred to earlier, which was about the majority of Labour voters voting to Remain and also the way in which, if we were to lose their support, the number of seats that we would lose. More importantly, these weren’t just Remain seats, these were Leave seats as well. You can’t just look at a seat and say, ‘I’m a Leave seat. I’ve got to be Leave.’ It isn’t like that when three-quarters of your support are Remainers.
I think that argument had been thundering around, so I knew about this polling. I’d had this polling. I knew that other people had had it, but it was being sat on, so I kept referring to it in Shadow Cabinet meetings. I kept trying to bring it out in Brexit meetings, and people just weren’t having it. There were times when people would even try and say, ‘Of course, whoever it is that has done this polling, they’re a Tory, or they’re a Remainer, or they can’t be trusted.’
Just trying to undermine all this sort of stuff. I kept saying, ‘Okay, so you don’t want to see this polling. What’s our polling?’ Like, ‘Share our polling. What polling are we doing? Why are you saying these things? What’s your basis for it? because I have polling, what have you got?’
This fight kept going on, and on, and on, and saying: ‘Look, we cannot lose the Remainers. You understand that we can’t lose the Remainers. If the Brexiteers believe that their arguments are right and that the majority of people are in favour of leaving, then what’s the problem with putting the deal back to the people at the end of it?’
Then we had the Independent Group setting up as well. That was a challenge, I think, in which we were just able to say, ‘You see? You see how things are fracturing? You see how we are not being sufficiently clear about what our position is on Brexit? We have to come forward, and we have to have this position on a second referendum. Now is the time.’
UKICE: Was that given more impetus by the Lib Dem performance in the European elections, or was that pretty much irrelevant?
ET: I think I was on the results programme that night, and I think I was the first Labour voice once some results came up. I think that I said straight away at that point, completely off script, ‘These European election results show that there’s something wrong with the Labour position, that people don’t know what it is that we stand for. We need to be much clearer. This is why we’re losing so many votes. This is why parties that have clear positions are getting votes. We can’t keep trying to ride two horses anymore.’ I got into a lot of trouble for that, but, frankly, it was obviously true.
UKICE: Did you have polling that prepared you for how the Liberal Democrats would perform in the European elections, and what that suggested they might do as well, going forward, in any subsequent general election?
ET: That was what I was saying. It wouldn’t just be the Liberals. The Tories would do well. Basically, what would matter is that we would lose seats. We would lose a lot of our seats in Tory areas, and Lib Dem and Green areas. All kinds of parties would do well because the Remain vote would go somewhere else. It didn’t really matter whether people voting Green didn’t result in there being a Green MP. It would mean the Tories would get in because the progressive coalition would be fractured by what we were doing on Brexit.
UKICE: We talked about what was going on electorally, but obviously the first half of 2019 – or at least the period up to April 2019 – was also dominated by all these parliamentary votes as Theresa May attempted to get her deal through. We know the Conservative Government were making offers to some of the people on Labour that they thought were most likely to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement.
I just wondered what your reflections on that period were, whether you ever thought there was any prospect Parliament would suggest some other solution through the indicative votes, or that the Conservatives might actually manage to tempt sufficient of your backbench colleagues over to pass their Withdrawal Agreement?
ET: I didn’t think it was going to happen. I didn’t think there were enough people. I think the important argument was that Brexit was going to be a disaster. Why would you have blood on your hands? This deal is too hard. This deal doesn’t have us in the customs union.
I always said – I always said – that the result of the referendum should have been reflected in the Withdrawal Agreement, in that it was bloody close. So, we leave. That’s what the Brexiteers get, what they want. We leave, but then we stay as close as we possibly can and so that at least the nearly half of the country that voted to Remain also get a reflection of what they want. So, technically, we’re out, but actually we’re, to all practical purposes, as close as we can be.
I used to say an example was the Norwegians – where, as you know, the political class all think that it’s completely nuts that they’re not in the European Union, but the majority of the population like the deal. I thought that that was probably where we would end up. That would make sense, in a way, and that’s always what I thought we should do.
This deal – the deal that Theresa May was seeking, because she had made the choice to go with the hard-liners and not to come to us – it wasn’t the right option for the country. If she’d come to us, then we would have ended up with a properly soft deal, but, if we weren’t going to get a property soft deal, then we couldn’t agree to it.
UKICE: Theresa May’s line in her Mansion House speech was that a position where the UK was a rule taker, a sort of Norway-style position, was never going to be sustainable for either the EU or the UK. You didn’t really think there was much validity in that concern – that while it might work for Norway, because they’re quite small, the UK had bigger expectations?
ET: This whole kind of, ‘We’re going to be – we want to be – rule makers, not rule takers,’ was just nonsense, wasn’t it? If you look now, why have we left the European Union? Is it because we’re now going to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership? They were going to do that once they got themselves up and running and worked out what their rules are. We’re going to be rule takers and not rule makers when it comes to another trade agreement on the other side of the world. We’ve left the European Union in order to join that. I mean, really? Is that their great vision?
UKICE: In substantive terms, what was the difference between the Theresa May deal and the sort of deal that Labour, at that time, was in favour of?
ET: A customs union. She’d set her face against a customs union.
UKICE: Wasn’t what she came back with a customs union in all but name?
ET: It wasn’t a customs union, and we didn’t trust them
UKICE: That’s what the ERG thought it was.
ET: We didn’t trust them, either.
UKICE: So, it was partly just about whether they’d deliver on what they promised, as much as anything?
ET: No, it was that they weren’t being sufficiently clear about what they promised, first of all, right? That’s number one. Then, even if we could believe that what they were saying wasn’t really what they were promising – they were promising something better – they wouldn’t necessarily deliver on it.
UKICE: Did you ever think anything would come Theresa May opening up the talks with Labour?
ET: No. They weren’t going to yield anything. They weren’t going to give anything, and by that stage we just wanted another referendum.
UKICE: Sorry, are you saying, ‘They weren’t going to give anything, and, even if they had, we wanted a referendum anyway’?
ET: Yes, we wanted a referendum on it anyway. One of the things we wanted was a more sensible deal. Obviously, we wanted to have a more sensible deal because we might have lost the referendum, so of course we wanted a more sensible deal. We wanted to be able to influence a deal, have a customs union in it, for example, but then we wanted to have a referendum. As part of the talks, we were going to say, ‘Right, this is all very well. Now let’s put that back to the people.’
UKICE: Did she not offer a vote on a referendum towards the tail end of those negotiations?
ET: I don’t remember that.
UKICE: However, they wouldn’t put it on the face of the bill.
ET: Yes. Well, there we are.
UKICE: You were speaking at People’s Vote rallies and things like that. Did you get any pushback from the Leader of the Opposition’s office about you doing that?
ET: Yes, they weren’t very happy, but again I was always very careful. I didn’t go against Labour policy, apart from the suggestion that our policy now was that we were in favour of a referendum but that we weren’t going to say in that referendum, or in advance of the referendum, what our position would be.
We had got ourselves into a complete Gordian knot of, ‘Yes, if you vote Labour in the general election, you will get a referendum, but you won’t know whether Labour is going to campaign for or against. We’re going to go off and negotiate a better deal, and then we’ll put it to a referendum. We can’t even say if we’re going to be for or against that.’
It was just like… I just said, ‘You know what I think, Jeremy. I’ve always said that I will never tell people in a vote that I’m campaigning for that they should vote to leave the European Union.’ I’ve always said that. I had always said it.
UKICE: Were you impressed by the People’s Vote campaign? Did you think it was good, or was it flawed?
ET: When they started off, they seemed to me to be so angry at Labour that they were basically campaigning against Labour. Instead of campaigning to change the mind of the Government, they were just focused on us and so it was used by other people on the progressive left – and some within the Labour Party – to have a go at the leadership of the Labour Party.
That really was not helpful for those of us within the Labour Party, and in senior positions in the Labour Party, who were trying to push us in this direction, but we were being hit by all the flak coming from the People’s Vote campaign, who were seen as fifth columnists.
That was really, really difficult. I had to have a series of very serious conversations with people within the People’s Vote, saying, ‘Just leave us alone. Just stop this. Stop behaving like this. Stop attacking us all the time, and stop allowing yourself to be a platform for other people from the progressive left turning up and just saying, ‘Perfidious Labour selling us out,” which was what was happening all the time.
This is not helpful. So, Tom Baldwin and Rachel Kinnock, Rachel now works for me, we at least tried to change the way in which the People’s Vote was behaving, so that we could get onto a platform without being accused of actually being treacherous to the Labour Party.
UKICE: Did the hundreds of thousands in the streets impress Jeremy Corbyn, because one would have thought that that was the kind of thing that he might be impressed by?
ET: I don’t know. Genuinely, I didn’t talk to him about it, so I don’t know.
If it had been hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in Newcastle… the People’s Vote campaign – the Islington People’s Vote campaign – would come and see me and, ‘What shall we do? What shall we do? What else can we do?’ I would just say, ‘Go to Redcar. Go and get yourself some converts from outside of Islington. Get some campaigning going elsewhere so that you can show that the campaign is working on behalf of the whole country.’
This whole kind of, ‘It may have been a great big demonstration, but look how well behaved they all were, and they all had Waitrose shopping bags,’ was awful. It was the way of just disempowering those people and taking away their voice.
UKICE: How much was Jeremy Corbyn actually engaged with Brexit ?
ET: Yes. No, absolutely. No, but that’s the central point, isn’t it?
That is the absolute central point, that there are certain things that Jeremy is absolutely on, and has always been on, and has always been really, really interested in and goes to naturally, and speaks about with real passion and so on.
He’s not interested in Brexit. He just wasn’t. It wasn’t part of his song sheet. It just wasn’t, just like he wanted it to go away. Of course, it might have been a generational thing or I don’t know what. But yes, he just really didn’t want to do it. Really he was quite happy to, in a way, give it to others to deal with so that he could get on with other things.
UKICE: So that allowed room for others to make the running on it, really?
ET: The point was that he wanted to delegate. There obviously were a couple of camps. He wasn’t ever completely clear about which camp he was delegating it to, and he didn’t like conflict afterwards. So, hey, this isn’t going to work well, is it?
I also think – I genuinely also think – that there were times when I would be on conference calls with Jeremy, and Jeremy would agree with me and be shouted down by members of his staff. I would say, ‘Hang on a minute. Jeremy has just said,’ whatever, dah, dah, dah, dah, and there would be people trying to, kind of, push him.
As I always said, it’s for politicians to make decisions. Advisors can advise. But the politicians make decisions, not advisors. We are the ones who go out and say what our position is. You shouldn’t have behind-the-scenes briefings, particularly if they’re different to what the politicians have agreed. It’s just not acceptable.
UKICE: Was that during these conference calls that you could hear them doing this, or was this after you’d put the phone down?
ET: No, it was during the conference calls. It was during the conference calls, where JC would say something and then people would go, ‘Jeremy, that can’t be right,’ because of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’d just go, ‘Actually, Jeremy has just said that’s what he thinks.’
I don’t know whether that happens in other political parties at times of stress or whatever. I presume that it’s not unprecedented, but it was really horrible to see it. I was shocked, frankly.
The Johnson Government and the general election
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Were you all surprised by Boris Johnson getting a deal?
Emily Thornberry (ET): Yes, because we couldn’t understand how Northern Ireland was going to work without a customs union.
UKICE: Do you think that the Remainers in Parliament were blindsided and slightly flatfooted as a result?
ET: Yes. We weren’t expecting it. We just weren’t expecting it, but the reason we weren’t expecting it was because of the Northern Ireland part. As you know, the Northern Ireland protocol doesn’t work.
There we were, being literal and just looking at what was going to work. It wasn’t going to work and so then we were surprised when everyone agreed something that wasn’t going to work. I don’t think we can be blamed for being surprised in the circumstances.
Even Boris Johnson is surprised at what it was that he signed up to. It took him about a year to work out what it was that he signed up to and go, ‘God, no. Surely I didn’t agree to that. It looks like I did. I didn’t mean to.’ Yes, of course we were.
UKICE: You said, Emily, that you thought that the general election was a mistake. I just wondered, in your counterfactual world what would have happened that autumn if Johnson had his deal but the general election wasn’t conceded. Did you expect the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to pass with lots of amendments, or did you ever think there was any real prospect that there might be some sort of Government of National Unity to take it through or tack on a referendum to that ?
ET: Yes, so what I said was that we should not rise to the bait, that since Johnson had been elected in the summer he had been trying to goad us into having a general election. That we had to think about why was it that the Tories wanted there to be a general election? What was their game plan? What was the trap they were setting for us? Why would we agree to what it was that they wanted? What were we really going to get out of it?
My view was that, if we had a general election, it was bound to be just a Brexit election. You would get the Tories clear on one side, the Lib Dems and the Scots Nats clear on the other, and then us in the middle. We would just get mashed. I think I said at the time it was a bit like Luke Skywalker in the masher in Star Wars, where the walls are coming in and he just got mashed.
That was what was going to happen to the Labour Party, and we couldn’t, and we shouldn’t, and we mustn’t agree to it, and that what we should do is stand firm and say, ‘You’ve got your deal. Now get it through Parliament. Fine, we’re going to get it through Parliament. Now you’ve got to sort out the long-term arrangements. Now you’ve done your interim agreement, now you’ve got to get your long-term one. If you want to get that through, then we will vote for it, but only if there’s a referendum attached to it.’
That’s what we should have done, and we should have said, ‘If you want to have a single issue, then have a referendum. Don’t have a general election. We’re not going to agree to a general election,’ which is a general election where you hold the Tories to account on what it is they’ve done to the country for the last 10 years, and you don’t allow them to hide behind Brexit. You hold them to account on everything, or you have a referendum. You have a referendum on a single issue. That’s what we should have done.
The trouble was that, because the Lib Dems and the Scots Nats were saying, ‘We want to have a general election,’ we got spooked into voting for it. Once Jeremy had said that we wanted to have a general election, then we all had to claim that it was a great thing because, obviously, you can’t do anything else. But it was wrong.
I made it perfectly clear. I remember trying to get in to see Jeremy and they wouldn’t let me see him. I think in the end I wrote him an email of what I thought and what he should do. Then I raised it in Shadow Cabinet but just couldn’t get through to them, just couldn’t.
You had the likes of Laura Pidcock, and (Ian) Lavery, and lord knows who else in Shadow Cabinet, saying, ‘Jeremy, we can fight a general election. We can win a general election. The public want to hear a proper vision for the future. They need an alternative. They need you to get out there, one more push. We’re going to win it.’ I was going, ‘We just can’t. They will just talk about Brexit.’ ‘No, Jeremy, we’re going to be clear about it. Anyway, we should be Brexiteers,’ and so it would go on.
Through all of that, we ended up in the position where we surely knew that we were going to get mashed. Not only did we give the Tories another five years, but we gave them carte blanche to do whatever they like with the country, which has always been my worry when it comes to Brexit. That’s what has happened.
UKICE: Do you think what happened in 2017 informed the view of those people who were prepared to concede a general election? In other words, they thought that Jeremy would be able to do what he did in 2017 again in 2019.
ET: Yes, of course. I think there was a certain amount of that, and I think also Jeremy enjoys elections. That’s what he does. He does it well. He loves it. So, there was a bit of that too, kind of, ‘Yes, let’s get out and talk to people. Let’s get out to the country. Let’s put out our message,’ but it was about the country for another five years and whether we’re going to stay in the European Union or not. That was what was important.
UKICE: Brexit has obviously polarised the country profoundly. Do you think those divisions will be healed over time, or do you think the Brexit divide is here for the foreseeable future in our politics?
ET: Look, we’ve left. Hopefully, we’re going to get a deal. I suspect that – well, at least I hope – what’s going to happen, and I’m always an optimist. What’s going to happen is that we’re going to end up with a pathetic, flimsy deal that won’t really deliver the things that we need. I’m going to mix my metaphors horribly here, but once the caravan moves off, once the politicians go, once the media no longer looks at this every day, people of goodwill can come together, and can fill in some of the holes and actually get a working relationship going. If it doesn’t have its political resonance anymore, then I think that will be fine.
I think that there are other fights now. I think that Covid has completely turned our world upside down and, really, it’s completely unpredictable who has been hit by it. It isn’t just on the usual class grounds, where the people at the bottom of the heap do worse when there are bad times. Actually, people at the top of the heap have been hurt really badly too, so I think that it has shaken up everything. I think that politics will move on because of that. In all of that confusion, I’m hoping that people will start patching the holes, but it won’t be the politicians.
UKICE: Do you think re-join is out for a generation? Or do you think we might, in the future, look to create a Norway-style arrangement you were talking about as a possible outcome?
ET: I thought in a way actually that the most threatening agreement to the European Union would have been for Britain to have a soft Brexit. If we had done that and it had worked, it would have been quite attractive to other countries as well. We might have ended up with an outer ring of people of countries semi-detached, and the inner ring of more determined Europeans. Do you know what I mean? It would be interesting, if we had a soft Brexit, whether somewhere like Denmark might have been interested in doing the same sort of arrangement. But it hasn’t worked so, hey, that’s where we are.
I think that there are going to be problems because, if we want to re-join, then technically don’t we need to join Schengen? Don’t we need to join the Euro? There are all kinds of things. We won’t get back in again on the same terms on which we left. I think people need to think about that and think about what that means.
I think that at the moment there has been just too much pain attached to this. There’s not the political will to even look at this yet. Whether in five years’ time people even want to start thinking about it would be another matter, but we’ve got too much else on now, so I think we’re gone. I think the only room for creativity is in the way in which the holes are patched. You know?