Len McCluskey tips Emily Thornberry as next Labour leader

Influential union leader foresees shadow foreign secretary taking over should vacancy arise, sources say

The influential head of the Unite union, Len McCluskey, has tipped Emily Thornberry to become Labour’s first female leader, according to party and trade union sources.

McCluskey, one of the most prominent backers of the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is understood to have expressed admiration for the shadow foreign secretary, although sources stressed Corbyn was secure at the top of the party.

One senior union source confirmed to the Guardian that McCluskey tipped Thornberry to be the next Labour leader whenever a vacancy might arise. The source said the union boss had told friends he felt strongly the next leader should be a woman, given that no woman has ever led the party except on an acting basis.

A Unite spokesman declined to comment about Thornberry and said the Unite general secretary was focused on supporting the party’s current leader at this time.

The spokesman said: “Len McCluskey backs one leader of our party and one leader only and that is Jeremy Corbyn. Unite’s every focus is on getting a Corbyn-led government into No 10 and seeing the end of this miserable Conservative administration.”

Senior Labour sources added that McCluskey had been musing about potential successors to Corbyn in the run-up to the general election, when allies of the Labour leader feared he would face pressure to resign in the event of a poor performance at the polls. In May, McCluskey, whose union is Labour’s biggest donor, said that if the party won just 200 seats that could be seen as a success. Labour’s election tally was 262.

After the party’s better-than-expected performance on 8 June, Corbyn’s backers now believe there is time for other potential candidates – including Rebecca Long-Bailey, a close ally of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary – to build up more experience.

Thornberry, who is also shadow first secretary of state, has impressed Labour members while standing in for Corbyn at prime minister’s questions, as well as McCluskey, whose admiration for her was first reported by HuffPost.

She has also won favour for her blunt attacks on Conservative cabinet ministers. She told the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, he was talking “bollocks” during the election campaign.

Corbyn allies believe there is now less urgency attached to proposed changes to Labour leadership rules to ensure a leftwinger could make it on to the ballot paper.

Thornberry and Corbyn have historically had a close relationship, as they represent the neighbouring north London constituencies of Islington South and Islington North respectively.

However, Thornberry does not have a long association with the left of the party, within which cabinet colleagues such as Corbyn, McDonnell and the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, first formed close bonds.

The former barrister has not had an unblemished political career, having been sacked as shadow attorney general by the then Labour leader Ed Miliband during the 2014 Rochester byelection, for tweeting a picture of a house covered in England flags which critics said showed contempt for its inhabitants.

Thornberry resigned with Miliband’s agreement after a tabloid storm and criticism from Labour colleagues, but she initially said critics were guilty of “a somewhat prejudiced attitude towards Islington”.

The MP initially backed the former shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper in the 2015 Labour leadership election, but swiftly became one of Corbyn’s closest allies in the shadow cabinet, including during the summer of turmoil in 2016 when he was challenged for the leadership by Owen Smith.

Thornberry, who was shadow defence secretary, then replaced Hilary Benn as foreign secretary, initially also taking on the Brexit brief before Keir Starmer was appointed to the shadow cabinet.

Senior party sources have repeatedly quashed separate rumours that Thornberry is being lined up to replace Tom Watson as deputy leader or be appointed as a second deputy.

Any change of deputy would require a vote of no confidence in Watson or a successful challenge, which the parliamentary party would be highly unlikely to support. Allies of Thornberry have vehemently denied she is planning any challenge.

An additional deputy leader’s post would need to be approved by the party conference, but no motion has been put forward by constituency parties or put before the party’s national executive committee.


Jessica Elgot and Heather Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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