“When you’re in a hole, stop digging” is the kind of good advice politicians can be very bad at taking, and Sunday morning saw shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry with shovel in hand, blithely piling up soil during an interview with Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News.
Asked to name the French foreign minister and coming up blank, Thornberry immediately went in for the attack, accusing Murnaghan of “pub quizzing” her. When she pushed the discussion onto South Korea (presumably thinking it safer ground) Murnaghan caught her out again by asking her to name the South Korean president. By the end of the interview, Thornberry had escalated to openly charging him with sexism.
It sounded desperate: does Thornberry really believe there’s a specific double standard at play here? That male politicians are not expected to know the details of their brief? That the names and characters of players on the international stage are mere trivialities which a man in her position would never have to trouble himself over?
If so, she’s wrong. Murnaghan was obviously going for the “gotcha” with his line of questioning, but the fact that he did get her – repeatedly – exposes an unhappy truth about Labour. It isn’t ready for power. With the shadow cabinet reduced to a loyal rump of Corbyn supporters, posts are awarded not so much on merit than simply because an MP is still in the room.
Stretching that thin selection of talent to cover the whole work of government, briefs are doubled and tripled up on: no one could envy Thornberry her dual role. The Foreign Office so notoriously demanding it’s historically been used by prime ministers to smother the careers of ambitious rivals, and trying to master the madness of Brexit is enough to make a fool of anyone.
But for Thornberry to admit the impossibility of her position would be to admit the impossibility of Labour under Corbyn being a party of government. Hence the deflection: blame the media, blame misogyny, blame anything but your own ill-preparedness. What really galls here, of course, is that sexist abuse of female MPs is endemic and ruinous, especially within the Labour Party.
Feminism means standing together as women, over and above political differences. But Thornberry’s name is not one of the 45 signed to the letter imploring Corbyn to address the abuse his supporters have directed at women. Instead, she has repeatedly enjoined her colleagues to back their leader, despite the fact that his backing for them has been decidedly lacking.
When Thornberry complained to Murnaghan about the high bar imposed on women in politics, a more compelling example than her own foundering on basic facts would have been that of Angela Eagle, whose leadership challenge stumbled and ultimately faltered under a hail of abuse that included homophobic jibes and actual bricks through window. Invoking this toxic environment as cover for her own lack of preparation was an unsisterly act from Thornberry.
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