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UK pollie Emily Thornberry: “I’ll tell you what I think of Boris”

Early one sunny afternoon last week, she arrives late from an appointment at the Art Gallery of NSW, and a little flustered. She’s just had a nasty bump on her head, from a bicycle accident before she left London, looked at by a doctor. She’s dealt with the jet lag but been in back-to-back meetings for days. I’ll later learn that a night out the previous evening with staff and friends risked getting out of hand, until they were told that Sydney was closed at 11pm – so at least she’s had a good night’s sleep.

I’ve booked us a table at Franca, a French brasserie that has taken over the site of Fratelli Fresh in Potts Point, concerned she might miss French restaurants over the coming years.

Entrees of scallops and tuna sashimi nicoise at Franca.

Entrees of scallops and tuna sashimi nicoise at Franca.Credit:Renee Nowytarger

Franca has been opened only a matter of days, and it is clear the managers are running a tight ship. As the Herald’s photographer sets up moments before midday, staff are called to a briefing before service starts. The room glows with a restrained sort of French elegance; when the first diners arrive, a mixture of younger locals and older lunching ladies.

One of Thornberry’s staffers arrives and apologises for her slight delay. “She’s just catching her breath,” she says, holding two fingers to her mouth in the universal semaphore for “the boss is having a quick smoke”.

Thornberry enters and offers a firm handshake and a direct gaze. She has sensible hair and a glamorous jacket, and a percussive sort of laugh that makes you think lunch is going to be more fun than work.

“Just a glass of water will be fine,” she says as she dumps her handbag and begins taking instructions from the photographer. But when she sits down and sees my glass of wine and a waiter offers us a wine list, she looks at me over her glasses. I offer her a glass and the gaze remains fixed. I order a bottle of Domaine Oudin “Les Serres” 2015.

Thornberry is, refreshingly, not one of those politicians reluctant to engage in domestic political combat while abroad.

“What do I think of Boris?” she says repeating my question. “I’ll tell you what I think of Boris,” she begins. “Most politicians, like us or hate us, we do have a kind of calling, perhaps a misguided one, but we think that we can change the world, that’s why we are in politics.

“He doesn’t have that. What he wants is to be able to show off. So becoming mayor of London suited him because he was able to show off during the Olympics, and then he gave the actual management to his juniors while he sort of jollied about and was loved.”

She argues that Johnson does not even believe in the stance for which he is most famous, Brexit.

Thornberry says Johnson was happy for the schisms of Brexit to tear apart his party and deliver him the prime ministership, but he never really expected the referendum for Brexit to succeed. Rather, she believes, he expected its failure to clear the way for him to sweep in as the prime minister of a nation in the EU with the Brexit warfare behind it.

Now, she says, having taken the leadership, there is nowhere for Johnson to hide.

"That's bollocks, bollocks, bollocks," says Emily Thornberry to Spectrum's Nick O'Malley, replying to a question about Theresa May.

“That’s bollocks, bollocks, bollocks,” says Emily Thornberry to Spectrum’s Nick O’Malley, replying to a question about Theresa May.Credit:Renee Nowytarger

“It cannot go on like this,” she says, firmly rapping the table to emphasise her words. “It cannot go on like this. All the way along he has been pushing this, so now there are no more excuses, now you have to deliver. And if you think being some kind of low-grade Churchill is going to get us through this, well good luck. I just wish he wasn’t playing with the future of my country.”

This might not be a surprising view for an opponent to take, but it is not entirely unique to Labour figures. Despite Johnson’s popularity within elements of the voting public – and with Donald Trump – some leading conservative figures in Britain have expressed their concern about Johnson’s character. A year ago, the prominent former Tory MP (now Lord) Michael Heseltine said of the then Foreign Secretary: “Well, I think that you have to see Boris as a career map. He works it out, he decides which way the wind is blowing … waits to see the way the crowd is running and then dashes in front and says, ‘Follow me’.”

It cannot go on like this … And if you think being some kind of low-grade Churchill is going to get us through this, well good luck.

Emily Thornberry on Boris Johnson

Thornberry is equally scathing about the Conservative prime minister that Boris just replaced, Theresa May. In English-language media around the world it is not uncommon to hear the view that May was dealt a terrible deck of cards when she took over the top job and played them as well as possible.

“That’s bollocks, bollocks, bollocks,” says Thornberry as we dive into entrees of scallops with pumpkin, almond and beurre blanc and tuna sashimi nicoise.

At this point, it is worth noting that before the Brexit referendum May too supported the Remain camp, as did David Cameron, who she replaced in the wake of the referendum. As prime minister though, she took up the cause as directed by the plebiscite and, in Thornberry’s view, went too far.

Thornberry argues that as the newly installed prime minister she could have advocated a minimalist Brexit model. “We leave, but we don’t go far.”

May, she says, opted for a tough line on Brexit it order to satisfy the hard right of her own party.

“It was always about the way they were going to keep the Tory party [together] and it was never about the good of the nation.”

Whatever you think of Thornberry’s take on Brexit, Labour’s is equally complicated.

To put it briefly, if not simply, British Labour officially opposes Brexit, but its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is an old leftie with a well-known history of scepticism towards the EU. As one English political observer puts it to me a few days after the lunch: in the eyes of many, Corbyn is a Brexiteer in the closet, but with the doors wide open.

But Thornberry is not. The day before we met for lunch she was even able to make the British papers by telling Australian media that Labour should demand another referendum on the issue and campaign to remain. But, I clarify as our main courses arrive and the afternoon hum in the restaurant begins to kick up to a cheerfully lubricated buzz, you insist that you will prosecute Brexit should a second referendum reinforce the first and Labour were to win power?

Well, yes, she says, going back to the first vote. “We had the bloody referendum and we lost. So we had to wake up the next day and take our instructions from the public, we are public servants.”

Therefore, she says, she will continue to advocate for another referendum. Should that occur, she would campaign to remain. Should that fail, she would commit to the introduction of Brexit. Again.

“I’ve never pretended that I think we should do anything but remain, but I have always been clear that I have been doing as instructed by the public even though I do it with a broken heart.”

This strikes me as difficult political stance, not so much threading a needle as threading a fistful of them.

Like many in Labour, Thornberry’s path to politics began with a close-up view of poverty, though, as she explains her childhood over a vast leafy salad of chicken, grilled vegetables and lettuce, it was not a typical one.

Her father abandoned her family while she and her two siblings were children. She remembers her mother struggling to feed the family. She also remembers reconciling and moving in with her father in her late teens, before he disappeared one day for a job in New York with the United Nations. Depending on how the story is told, she says, she can be described as, “the daughter of a single parent who lived on free school dinners … or you could say that I am the daughter of the assistant secretary-general of the United Nations”.

After a few years at the bar Thornberry began to consider politics, but only made the decision to run for office when female candidates were specifically recruited.

“It is difficult as a woman in politics,” she says. “We have not been here very long and there are not very many of us, so each of us has to try and find our own way.” According to Thornberry, a close Corbyn ally, it was his example that gave her the confidence to discover her own political persona. Corbyn, looking like a rumpled throwback from the barricades of the 1980s, managed to take over a party that had been run by polished technocrats for a generation.

His success gave Thornberry licence to be herself. “I make jokes when I talk about serious things. I should be self-conscious about that. I swear and I shouldn’t pretend that I don’t.” Asked if she would like his job, which a few people have suggested, Thornberry gives a practised political answer. “I think there is not a vacancy and Jeremy is leader until Jeremy decides not to be leader.”

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