Emily Thornberry

The Right Honourable
Emily Thornberry
Official parliamentary portrait, June 2017
Shadow First Secretary of State
Assumed office
14 June 2017
Leader Jeremy Corbyn
Shadowing Damian Green
David Lidington (De Facto)
Preceded by Angela Eagle (2016)
Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Assumed office
27 June 2016
Leader Jeremy Corbyn
Shadowing Philip Hammond
Boris Johnson
Jeremy Hunt
Preceded by Hilary Benn
Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union
In office
20 July 2016  6 October 2016
Leader Jeremy Corbyn
Shadowing David Davis
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Keir Starmer
Shadow Secretary of State for Defence
In office
5 January 2016  27 June 2016
Leader Jeremy Corbyn
Shadowing Sir Michael Fallon
Preceded by Maria Eagle
Succeeded by Clive Lewis
Shadow Minister of State for Employment
In office
16 September 2015  6 January 2016
Leader Jeremy Corbyn
Shadowing Priti Patel
Preceded by Stephen Timms
Succeeded by Nick Thomas-Symonds
Shadow Attorney General
In office
7 October 2011  3 December 2014
Leader Ed Miliband
Shadowing Dominic Grieve
Jeremy Wright
Preceded by The Baroness Scotland of Asthal
Succeeded by The Lord Bach
Member of Parliament
for Islington South and Finsbury
Assumed office
5 May 2005
Preceded by Chris Smith
Majority 20,263 (42.1%)
Personal details
Born (1960-07-27) 27 July 1960
Surrey, England
Political party Labour
Children 3
Parents Cedric Thornberry
Sallie Thornberry
Alma mater University of Kent
Website Official website

Emily Anne Thornberry[1] (born 27 July 1960) is a British Labour Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament for Islington South and Finsbury since the 2005 general election.

Thornberry was born in north Surrey, the daughter of Sallie and Cedric Thornberry. She studied Law at the University of Kent before practising as a barrister from 1985 to 2005, specialising in human rights law under the guidance of Michael Mansfield. She was first elected to Parliament in 2005, serving on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee from 2005 to 2010. In the 2005–10 Parliament, she spoke out on both housing issues and issues relating to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, as well as voting against the whip on issues relating to national security on several occasions.

Thornberry was re-elected in the 2010 general election, and appointed Shadow Attorney General in Ed Miliband's shadow cabinet, serving until she resigned on 20 November 2014 after sending a tweet that was branded 'snobby'.[2] She was again re-elected in the 2015 general election. After Jeremy Corbyn won the 2015 leadership election on 12 September, Thornberry was appointed Shadow Minister of State for Employment. In a shadow cabinet reshuffle in January 2016, she became Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, replacing Maria Eagle.[3] In June 2016, she was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in another reshuffle.[4] She was also Shadow "Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union" from July 2016 to October 2016.[5] Following the June 2017 general election, she was appointed the additional role of Shadow First Secretary of State.

Before Parliament

Thornberry was born in north Surrey to Cedric Thornberry, an international lawyer who was a United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and worked as a consultant for NATO,[6] and Sallie Thornberry, a teacher.[7] When Thornberry was seven, her parents divorced and she had to leave their home with her mother and two brothers. After this, she relied on free school meals and food parcels, and their cats had to be put down to save money.[8] Her mother later became a Labour councillor and mayor.[9]

She was educated at the University of Kent at Canterbury where she studied Law in 1982. She was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn and practised as a barrister specialising in human rights law from 1985 to 2005 under Michael Mansfield QC at Tooks Chambers.

Thornberry joined the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1985.[10] In the late 1980s, she became a friend of Waheed (now Lord) Alli, and persuaded him to join the Labour Party.

In the 2001 general election, she stood as the Labour candidate in Canterbury, but was defeated by the Conservative incumbent, Julian Brazier[11] by a margin of 2,069 votes.

Parliamentary career

Early parliamentary career (2005–10)

Following the decision of Chris Smith MP not to stand again, Thornberry was selected as the Labour candidate for Islington South and Finsbury for the 2005 general election through an all-women shortlist of prospective candidates.[12] She was elected to Parliament with a majority of 484.[13] Nick Smith (who subsequently was elected to Parliament representing Blaenau Gwent) served as her election agent.

Thornberry made her maiden speech in the House of Commons on 24 May 2005.[14] In Parliament, she has been a member of the Environmental Audit Committee and was on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee during the 2005–10 Parliament. She is vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Choice and Sexual Health Group.

Thornberry's main interests since becoming an MP have been in health, housing, the environment, and equality. She has also spoken on the need for more affordable housing, particularly in Islington. In 2006, Thornberry introduced the Housing Association Bill – a Private Member's Bill which sought to improve the control of housing association tenants over their landlords.[15] Many of the ideas from this bill were taken up by the Cave Review.[16] On environmental matters, Thornberry has worked with Friends of the Earth and World Wide Fund for Nature to campaign for a Climate Change Bill and a Marine Bill. In 2006, Thornberry won the ePolitix Award for Environment Champion of the Year after being nominated by WWF.[17]

Electoral Commission complaint

In 2006, 67% of people in Islington had registered for the forthcoming council elections.[18]

Steve Hitchins, leader of Islington Council, complained to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer, that Thornberry had "altered an electronic copy of an Electoral Commission news release by inserting a quotation from herself".[19] During the investigation, the Commissioner accepted that Thornberry's primary motive was to act in the public interest by supporting the Electoral Commission's campaign to improve response rates, and consequently levels of voter registration. He found her actions to have been "unwise and unfortunate" but that "there was no intention on her part to deceive or manipulate the public, nor had that been the effect of her actions".[20] The Committee on Standards and Privileges agreed with his findings and found that the evidence did not support Hitchins' claims.[19]

Mugging claims

In March 2008, Thornberry said she suspected that there are hardly any children in Islington who have not been mugged at some stage.[21] This was denied by the Metropolitan Police as 'speculation', pointing out that out of a borough total population of 180,000, only 750 people under 18 had reported being the victims of mugging in 2007.[22] However, the comments were deemed a hindrance to Labour London Mayor Ken Livingstone's re-election campaign.[23]

Voting behaviour

Though normally voting with the Labour Whip, Thornberry voted against her party's government on national security matters, regarding the detention of terror suspects without charge for 90 days in the Terrorism Act 2006, on the same matter for 42 days in the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, and against the renewal of Trident. Thornberry emerged unscathed from the expenses scandal.[24][25] In 2009, she was appointed a ministerial aide in the Department of Energy and Climate Change and attended the Copenhagen Summit in December that year with Joan Ruddock and Ed Miliband.[26]

Opposition under Ed Miliband (2010–15)

In May 2010, Thornberry was returned as MP for Islington South and Finsbury with an increased majority,[27] in a seat identified as the Liberal Democrats' top target in England for the 2010 general election.[28]

Thornberry was promoted to Shadow Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change in May 2010.[29] In the role she shadowed Charles Hendry.[30] Thornberry missed out on a place in Labour's Shadow Cabinet by one vote, but she was promoted to the role of Shadow Care Minister, under Shadow Health Secretary John Healey.[31][32]

In this role, Thornberry challenged the coalition government's lack of action over failing care home operator Southern Cross, calling for action and that the government put in place a plan B should the operator fail.[33] She criticised the government over the Winterborne View care home abuse scandal, calling for an investigation into the affair.[34] In April 2011, Thornberry surveyed all the Local Government Directors of Adult Social Care and highlighted the pressures on care for the elderly by the coalition government's cuts to Local Authority funds.[35]

Thornberry was appointed Shadow Attorney General in October 2011, in which capacity she attended Shadow Cabinet meetings.[36] Thornberry called for action by Dominic Grieve over Applied Language Solutions' failure to provide interpreters for court proceedings,[37] and called on the Attorney General to ensure that allegations of bribery involving Bernie Ecclestone were properly investigated.[38]

In 2011, Thornberry challenged David Cameron over his false claims about wages at Islington Council,[39] campaigning against government measures which Thornberry claims have exacerbated child poverty in Islington,[40] and answering over 1,000 enquiries a month from constituents.[41]

White Van Tweet

Thornberry resigned her Shadow Cabinet position on 20 November 2014, shortly after the polls closed in the Rochester and Strood by-election.[42] Earlier in the day, she had received much criticism after tweeting a photograph of a house in the constituency adorned with three flags of St George[43] and the owner's white van parked outside on the driveway, under the caption "Image from #Rochester", provoking accusations of snobbery.[44]

She was widely criticised by fellow Labour Party MPs, including leader Ed Miliband who asserted her tweet conveyed a "sense of disrespect", Chris Bryant who said that it broke the "first rule of politics"[45] and Simon Danczuk who suggested that the party had been "hijacked by the north London liberal elite".[46]

Opposition under Jeremy Corbyn (2015–)

In September 2015, she was appointed Shadow Minister for Employment by the new Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. She was promoted to Shadow Defence Secretary in January 2016, replacing Maria Eagle. On being appointed, Thornberry was interviewed by the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS). She said: "I have actually quite a lot more experience than people might think I do. As I say I have a member of the armed forces I have a brother-in-law who's a general. I was actually made an honorary lieutenant colonel when I was doing court-martials [sic] when I was a barrister and so I have a certain amount of experience of the military there."[47]

The Ministry of Defence denied this claim and Thornberry subsequently admitted she had thought she was made a colonel to have access to the officers' mess, not to appear in courts-martial.[48] During a Labour discussion about the nuclear deterrent, Thornberry admitted that she did not know what the United States nuclear defence rating, Defcon, is.[49] Thornberry is a member of the Labour Friends of Israel.[50]

In a September 2016 TV interview, whilst serving as shadow foreign minister, Thornberry was asked to name the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development (Jean-Marc Ayrault). Thornberry confirmed that she was unable to name the minister,[51] and accused the interviewer of "pub-quizzing" and sexism. Thornberry then asked to discuss the situation of North Korea, so the interviewer asked if she knew who the South Korean president was, but Thornberry did not know, saying that the interview was descending into a pub quiz. Female journalists and politicians, including Isabel Hardman and Ruth Davidson, quickly criticised Thornberry for using an allegation of sexism to cover her own poor performance.[51] Thornberry then appeared on Radio 4 to say that the interview had been sexist because the interviewer had not asked such questions of a man because the interviewer assumed that a man would know the answer.[52] However, the interviewer had previously asked a man, Alan Johnson, comparable factual questions. Johnson had also been unable to answer.[53]

Thornberry opposed Britain's involvement in the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen against the Shia Houthis. She said that "while Saudi Arabia will remain a valued strategic, security and economic ally in the years to come, our support for their forces in Yemen must be suspended until the alleged violations of international humanitarian law in that conflict have been fully and independently investigated."[54]

In 2018 May Thornberry said Support for Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, has been “underestimated” in the West.[55][56]


Affordable housing

Thornberry's constituency falls within the London Borough of Islington, one of the most deprived areas of the country with disproportionately high house prices and private sector rents.[57] Thornberry has frequently campaigned for a greater commitment to affordable and social housing.[58] She was criticised when the local Islington Tribune newspaper discovered that her husband had bought a former social house, which was being rented out to her aides.[58][59] Thornberry said the purchase was "not about property speculation".[59]

She has supported measures by Islington Council to free up under-occupied homes by supporting tenants to downsize[60] and to stop foreign investors from buying new homes and leaving them empty.[61] She has also called for a greater degree of control over private sector rents and more support for social house-building.[62]

In 2015 Thornberry clashed with Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, over the proposed redevelopments of the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, the sorting office run by the Royal Mail, and the Clerkenwell Fire Station, both in her constituency.[63] Camden and Islington councils sought to require a high proportion of the resulting new homes to be made available for social rent, but Johnson overturned this and allowed homes designated as "affordable" to charge rents of up to 80 percent of market rates. Thornberry strongly criticised Johnson, describing his definition of affordability as "nonsense",[62] and called for at least 50% of homes in the new developments to be made available for social rent.

Statue of Emily Davison

In 2013, the 100th anniversary of the death of the suffragette Emily Davison, Thornberry called for a statue commemorating Davison in Parliament. She arranged a public meeting to discuss options for a memorial, attended by around 800 people, and settled on the idea of a statue as an appropriate memorial, pointing out that there were very few statues of female politicians and activists in Parliament.[64]

Equal pay

In March 2015, Thornberry launched a campaign for a new Equal Pay Act. She said that, 45 years after the original Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, women still earned 19% less than men on average.[65] She called for "a profound culture change and radical legislation" to close the pay gap, and recommended measures to require companies where women make a successful complaint of pay discrimination to audit their practices and implement plans to ensure that men and women are paid equally for equal work.[65] She further argued for measures to make it easier to negotiate settlements in equal pay cases, for improved access to justice by waiving tribunal fees for a limited period, and to close loopholes whereby outsourcing and insecure working conditions often lead to unequal pay for women.[66]

Personal life

Thornberry has lived in Islington since the early 1990s. In July 1991 she married fellow-barrister Sir Christopher Nugee, of Wilberforce Chambers,[67] in Tower Hamlets, and they have two sons (born December 1991 and July 1999) and a daughter (born November 1993). Sir Christopher later became a Queen's Counsel, then a High Court Judge, when he was knighted, at which point Thornberry became entitled to be styled Lady Nugee, although she does not use the title. Since 1993 they have lived on Richmond Crescent, Barnsbury, where Tony Blair also lived until the 1997 general election, moving in on the same day as the Blairs.[68] Thornberry also part-owns properties in Guildford and South London.[59][69]

In April 2005, it emerged that Thornberry had sent her son to the partially selective Dame Alice Owen's state school 14 miles (23 km) away from her home and outside her constituency. The school was formerly based in Islington and still reserves ten per cent of its places for Islington pupils.[70] The Labour Party opposes selection and Thornberry was widely criticised over the issue as a result.[71] Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools said: "I celebrate her good sense as a parent and deplore her hypocrisy as a politician. When will those who espouse the virtues of comprehensive education apply the logic of their political message to their children?" Later, Thornberry's daughter also attended the school.[72]


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Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Chris Smith
Member of Parliament
for Islington South and Finsbury

Political offices
Preceded by
The Baroness Scotland of Asthal
Shadow Attorney General
Succeeded by
The Lord Bach
Preceded by
Maria Eagle
Shadow Secretary of State for Defence
Succeeded by
Clive Lewis
Preceded by
Hilary Benn
Shadow Foreign Secretary
New office Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union
Succeeded by
Keir Starmer
Title last held by
Angela Eagle
Shadow First Secretary of State
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