Emily Thornberry demonstrated today why she is the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Jeremy Corbyn – which would ensure the leadership baton is passed from one part of Islington to another.
Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman delivered a speech to conference that manage to tickled the erogenous zones of Labour members in a way that very few senior figures can. Her address was designed to make new delegates who self-identify as hard or soft left feel intensely good about themselves by confirming they are the moral conscience of the world. No opportunity was wasted to namecheck the causes that inspire them – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the battle of Cable Street, the fight against fascism in Franco’s Spain. Only the decision to mention Len McCluskey’s name alongside those of Mandela and King betrayed its political purpose; namely to position herself as a possible successor to Corbyn and thus complete one of the most remarkable political rebirths in Labour history.
Four years ago she was effectively sacked by Ed Miliband for apparently mocking a voter in who had bedecked his home with St George’s flags in Rochester. Today, a standing ovation before her speech as well as lengthy one after it confirmed her as one of the darlings of conference.
The decision to drop the idea of a second female deputy leader was a blow for Thornberry – she would have challenged along with Angela Rayner, although the leadership would probably have backed Dawn Butler.
But she can now set her sights on a higher goal – despite the fact she is not a Corbynite and never has been. She has voted consistently in favour of anti-terror legislation since being elected in 2005, supported bombing Iraq in 2014, voted for no-fly zones over Libya and even backed ID cards. But she has reinvented herself over the last few years, talking about her difficult childhood in interviews (and memorably telling one interviewer her mother had to have the family cat out down because they couldn’t’ afford to feed it).
She can’t complete with Angela Rayner when it comes to her backstory – Thornberry’s father worked for the UN and she’s married to a High Court judge – but she has been brandishing her loyalist credentials by touring conference this week heaping praise on Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott for restoring Labour to its ‘socialist roots’ – despite the fact she didn’t vote for any of them when they stood for party leader (she backed Gordon Brown, Ed Milliband and voted for Yvette Cooper despite nominating Corbyn). She has taken to the airwaves to defend Corbyn on numerous occasions and that loyalty is now beginning to pay off – at least in the eyes of members.
The chance of Corbyn’s inner circle ever backing Emily if Jeremy steps down are slim, but with few – if any – true believers ready to step into his shoes (the likes of Laura Pidcock, Dan Carden and even Rebecca Long-Bailey are still far too inexperienced), her popularity with members may mean she is in pole position to become leader, just a few years after Miliband banished her to the backbenches.