In March, rumours circulated widely that Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was positioning to challenge Tom Watson for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, with a vast majority of Labour members backing a bid.
Within days, according to senior Labour sources, at least thirty-five MPs were ready to support the challenge and Watson himself was described by insiders as ‘running scared’, but any preparations for a challenge were cut off by Theresa May’s General Election call a couple of weeks later.
Today, May was absent from the Commons today and being represented by Damian Green. The current Labour deputy leader was nowhere to be seen. Ms Thornberry represented Labour – and gave Green a thorough working over in a performance that was so impressive that there was an immediate resurgence in calls for her to take over as deputy leader.
Thornberry’s mix of jocularity and razor-sharp question was too much for Green, who looked and sounded nervous throughout and was forced into at least one lie to avoid relentless questions on the government’s continued clinging to a ‘no-deal’ option.
Under pressure from Thornberry, Green told the House that the OBR (Office of Budget Responsibility) would be announcing the results of analysis of the costs of a no-deal Brexit tomorrow – but the OBR immediately announced it was doing no such analysis:
So impressive was Ms T’s performance that PMQs had barely finished before the calls for her to be deputy were springing up:
Others followed through the afternoon:
Others didn’t mention the leadership specifically:
Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner was fulsome with a hint of role-reversal:
Comedian James Corden described it as a ‘mic drop’ moment:
And even the Huffington Post recognised the gulf in class between Thornberry and the benches opposite:
By the end of the afternoon, word was reaching the SKWAWKBOX that there may be substance to the rumours, so we contacted Ms Thornberry’s office to ask directly. The lady herself was not in but her press secretary denied she was planning a run at the deputy position because ‘there’s no vacancy’.
But of course, there doesn’t need to be a vacancy, as the same rules apply to the elected deputy leader’s position as to the leader’s – and if Ms Thornberry had the support of a little over fifty MPs out of Labour’s increased number in the Commons, she could trigger a contest regardless.
Before Theresa May’s General Election call there was enough substance to the rumours for the BBC’s Westminster Hour programme to be asking Ms T about her plans, so it’s worth keeping a close eye on developments – especially as Tom Watson was almost invisible during the General Election campaign and has done little since.
For now, it appears that while Emily Thornberry is not the de jure deputy leader, in the eyes of most Labour members and even significant parts of the media, she is the de facto holder.
Labour is lucky to have such a capable woman able to fill the void.
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