Labour gifted Boris Johnson his ‘Brexit election’. We can’t be so inept again | Emily Thornberry

Our next leader must be able to exploit the prime minister’s failings. We shouldn’t be distracted by false internal arguments

Listening to Labour colleagues on the media over the last week, I have repeatedly heard the refrain that the problem we faced last Thursday was that “this became the Brexit election”. To which I can only say: I look forward to their tweets of shock when next Wednesday’s lunch features turkey and brussels sprouts.

Let’s be clear: this was always going to be the Brexit election, the first genuine single-issue election in 119 years. Back then, in 1900, the Tories were cynically capitalising on their early success in the Boer war to try to win another thumping majority over the Liberals. It was also Labour’s very first election, and we went into it with noble domestic ambitions far distant from the South African veldt.

Provision for the aged poor. Better houses. Useful work for the unemployed. Adequate maintenance for children. The nationalisation of railways. And the establishment of social and economic equality between the sexes. Worthy priorities indeed, but we only won two seats, while the Tories stuck to their single issue and claimed a majority of more than 130.

At least then, we never had a choice. Calling an election was entirely in the government’s gift. But this time, we have no excuse. Boris Johnson proposed an election at a time of his own choosing, on an issue of his own choosing, and we went along with it – like crackers voting for Christmas. The Liberal Democrats agreed to it because they thought it would work in their favour, and Labour because we imagined we could change the subject. That was a total delusion.

I wrote to the leader’s office warning it would be “an act of catastrophic political folly” to vote for the election, and explained exactly why we should not go along with it. I argued that the single issue of Brexit should not be enough to give Johnson a five-year mandate to enact his agenda on every issue. Instead, I said we should insist on a referendum on his proposed deal, to get the issue of Brexit out of the way before any general election.

When I raised this at the shadow cabinet, and spoke forcefully against an election, some colleagues nodded along, but the loudest voices were pro-leave colleagues insisting that we should vote with Johnson. So we wilfully went into a single-issue election with no clear position on that issue and, as every pollster predicted, we were brutally squeezed by all the other parties with an unequivocal policy on Brexit, all of them sharing a clear strategy to eat into Labour’s base.

All over the country, we could see ourselves going backwards, despite the incredible hard work of our brilliant volunteers, councillors and candidates. They saw this result coming a mile off, and were amazed that the people running the campaign could not.

Worst of all, while we tried to focus on the implications of Brexit for the NHS, the Tories more successfully tied Labour’s ambiguity on the issue to their other main argument: that Jeremy Corbyn could not be trusted with the levers of power – a complete contrast with 2017, when his clear principles and authenticity had been major assets.

People can argue that our position should have been more pro-leave or more pro-remain, but the reality is we should never have allowed a Brexit election, which was Johnson’s obvious strategic goal from the moment he took office.

The question now is: how do we fight back from here? The answer is certainly not to have some great ideological debate between left, right and centre. Neither is it to set this up as a battle between leave and remain, north and south, or indeed men and women. When did we stop being for the many, not just half of us?

It won’t earn raucous cheers at a rally, but our starting point should instead be to ask ourselves: where is the strategic thinking in our party? Who has a proper plan for the future?

Say what you like about New Labour after 1994, and it’s known that I disagree with much of what it did, but credit where credit’s due: that team had deep political insight and absolute clarity of purpose, boiled down to a five-point pledge-card. It would never have voted to give Johnson the Brexit election he craved.

When I faced Johnson for the entire two years he was foreign secretary, the only ministerial job he previously held, my strategy was to focus relentlessly on five key issues where there were huge differences between Labour’s policy and his, and where his position was indefensible: the Northern Ireland border; the war in Yemen; Donald Trump; human rights; and climate change.

I took the fight to him every day, and pummelled him every week. Each time, the mask slipped, and we saw the real man – a mendacious, lazy, dangerous charlatan, unable to hide behind the tiresome smokescreen of bluster he usually relies on. He hated it, especially coming from a woman.

So when the Labour leadership contest begins, whoever is standing – and I hope to be one of the candidates – the first question shouldn’t be about their position on Brexit, or where they live in our country.

The first question should instead be: what’s your plan for taking on Johnson over the next five years? And do you have the political nous and strategic vision to reunite our party, rebuild our machine, gain the trust of the public, give hope to our declining towns and smaller cities, and never again waste the opportunity to take back power?

Goodness knows, we’ve been taught a painful enough lesson in how to prosecute a successful political strategy by Johnson over the last five months.

And if you’re a Labour voter seized with gloom – or a Tory gleaming with complacency – just remember that in 1906, six years after the last single-issue election, the Liberal opposition won a majority of 124, with the Tories losing 246 seats. Why? Because the Tories were totally divided over trade policy and because their “single issue” of the Boer war had turned into a disaster.

Will history repeat itself now as the Tories grapple with the reality of “getting Brexit done”? Well, history has a tendency to do that. And when the next election comes, I’d certainly like Labour to have a leader and team in place with the strategic vision to foresee and exploit Johnson’s failings.

Because if we can overturn that Tory majority, we can start focusing on the pledges from that 1900 Labour manifesto, which are now more than a century overdue – on elderly people, on housing, on the unemployed, and on child poverty. That’s the prize. Let’s keep our eye on it.

• Emily Thornberry is the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and the shadow foreign secretary


Emily Thornberry

The GuardianTramp

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