The Rt. Honourable Emily Thornberry’s resolute determination to conduct our interview while “having a fag” in an alley both surprised and amused me. Perhaps she wanted me to know she is ‘down with the kids.’ Perhaps she was hoping I would write about how ‘down-to-earth’ she is. Or maybe she was just gagging for a smoke. Either way, it certainly made our interview more memorable.
I began by asking her about her views on Britain’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US – the subject of the Union debate in which Mrs Thornberry spoke after our interview, arguing in opposition to the motion ‘The Special Relationship is Over’. She told me in no uncertain terms: “my view is that you stand up to bullies.” Trump, of course, is the bully. And ‘bully’, without a doubt, is an apt description.
As Mrs Thornberry stressed in the debate, Trump has humiliated May, who has tried in vain to forge a healthy, working relationship with the American president. He has no interest in seeking to establish a mutually beneficial trade deal with the UK. Instead, he is exploiting Britain’s post-Brexit desperation by trying to bully May into a trade deal which suits American interests at the expense of ours.
Mrs Thornberry told the chamber during the debate that “Trump is treating the presidency as some kind of act of arson… and he’s doing it wilfully.” I thought the imagery was fitting. Trump is destructive; his policies, his opinions, his tweets, his public orations serve only to aggravate, polarise and stoke tensions. As Mrs Thornberry put it, “he doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks.”
But she did not suggest the answer is severing ties with America. Because then, she argued, “Donald Trump will be able to embody America – and we mustn’t let him.” She contended that as tempting as it is to cut ourselves off from the US, we should not “give America the isolation which Trump wants his country to have.”
Yet, although she warns against cutting ties with America, she poured scorn over the notion that we will be able to forge a profitable, beneficial trade deal with the US – or any other non-EU country – after Brexit.
She said, “we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can go sailing off into the mid-Atlantic and rollick around the world making trade deals.” Perhaps her cynicism is defensible. The Japanese Prime Minister has said that after Brexit, a deal with the EU will be more of a priority than one with the UK. India, similarly, has expressed little enthusiasm for a post-Brexit bilateral trade agreement with Britain.
Meanwhile, Trump, with his usual eloquence and articulacy, claimed to be looking forward to a “big and exciting” trade deal with us – but in whose interests and at what cost?
Mrs Thornberry certainly doesn’t think the answer is sucking it up and accepting whatever trade deal we can get. She argued we have done enough “bowing and fawning” to Trump. She is an advocate of remaining in the EU customs union, by which member nations adopt a common tariff regime. She asserted with conviction that we need to “look after the economy and jobs” and remember that “nearly half our trade is with the EU.”
Mrs Thornberry makes it clear that in an ideal world – with cooperative EU officials and a PM with a spine – we would certainly remain in the customs union. This would please many, as we would no longer be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, we would have more control over our borders, we would enjoy true sovereignty, and we would all live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, this is the real world, and the EU hardly wants to make the process of Brexit as easy as possible, so that no other member state is led into temptation. When I asked Mrs Thornberry about Labour’s Brexit policy, she told me “we leave, but we don’t go far.” But can we really cherry-pick? Based on evidence (i.e. the fact that negotiations have pretty much stalled), I’m going to go with no.
When asked for some reflections on the Brexit negotiations, she said, “we’ve seen two years of a psychodrama where we’ve seen the Tories just fighting amongst themselves.” True indeed. But I was sceptical when she told me, “on the whole the Labour Party is pretty united over Brexit.” Just last month, Corbyn faced an outcry from senior Labour figures after the leadership thwarted an attempt by activists to bring about a second referendum.
Meanwhile, on foreign policy, Mrs Thornberry believes the biggest challenge Britain faces today is the decline of multilateralism. She argued that Britain is falling off the world stage as a result of Brexit and we will soon be forced to succumb to insularity and isolationism.
Will Britain be able to maintain its status as a world power after Brexit? Will we be cut off from global trade once we leave the EU? Or will we succeed in sustaining the vitality of our economy by making profitable, dynamic trade deals with the rest of the world?
Only time will tell.