Emily Thornberry – 2020 Speech on Britain in the World

Below is the text of the speech made by Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons on 13 January 2020.

I start by welcoming my new Front-Bench colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who brings a wealth of experience and passion on foreign policy issues, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), who has been a thorn in the side of the Government over unlawful arms sales. He is now even closer to the Mace—should the urge ever take him again.

I am, however, deeply sorry to lose from the Front Bench and our Parliament our good friends Helen Goodman and Liz McInnes. They were both fabulous constituency MPs and very well liked Members of the House, and their contributions on foreign policy from this Dispatch Box and in Westminster Hall were always constructive but forceful. Whether it was Helen’s brilliant work in forcing the Government to introduce the Magnitsky sanctions or her campaigning for the Uighurs in China or Liz’s passionate efforts to draw attention to the plight of civilians being attacked by their own Governments in Cameroon and Sudan, they both made a great contribution to the public discourse and will be sadly missed from those debates.

On a personal note, may I also say how delighted I am to be facing the Foreign Secretary today? In the national hunt season, it is apt to say that both of us got away quickly in our respective party leadership stakes. I joined him in making it over the first fence. I hope that, unlike him, I do not fall at the second, but I do hope that whoever wins, the outcome on our side will be better for the country than the outcome on his. I found myself at the weekend looking through some of my old exchanges with the Prime Minister at this Dispatch Box when he was Foreign Secretary and thinking about the chance of taking him on in the future. I want to read to the House one of the responses he gave to me in March 2017 when I asked our future Prime Minister about the Trump Administration’s reported desire to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. I say this just to reassure every Member, especially the newer ones on both sides, that our country is in the safest of hands and in the care of the most insightful of minds. This is what he said in response to my concerns about Donald Trump, the Paris agreement and other issues:

“With great respect, I must say that I think the right hon. Lady is again being far too pessimistic…. We were told that the JCPOA”—

the nuclear deal with Iran—

“was going to be junked; it is now pretty clear that America supports it.”—

supports it!—

“We were told that there was going to be a great love-in between the new US Administration and Russia; they are now very much…in line. As for climate change, I think the right hon. Lady is once again being too pessimistic. Let us wait and see. We have heard the mutterings of the right hon. Lady; let us see what the American Administration actually do. I think she will be pleasantly surprised, as she has been, if she were remotely intellectually honest, in all other respects.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2017; Vol. 624, c. 116.]

That was the strategic genius who is now in charge of our country, the intellectually honest politician, who, to be honest, clearly has no intellect. After all, as I have just recounted, in the space of just one answer to one question from me, he made four catastrophic and careless misjudgments on foreign policy issues—and that is before we get started on the hopeless faith in Trump’s son-in-law to negotiate a middle east peace deal, his horribly reckless treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, his craven attempts to champion monsters such as Crown Prince Salman and President Sisi, his disgraceful jokes about clearing dead bodies to make way for golf courses in Libya, his leading role in the unlawful sale of arms for use in Yemen and his shameful inaction in holding Myanmar to account for its genocidal treatment of the Rohingya.

So we now have a Prime Minister in place for the next five years with no heart when it comes to human rights and civilian deaths, no brain when it comes to Donald Trump and the fate of jailed Britons and no courage when it comes to taking on tyrants overseas. When it comes to foreign policy, he is the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion rolled into one, and he hasn’t got Dorothy to help him; he just has a pair of Dominics.

Mr Vara

As the right hon. Lady is in full flow in criticising colleagues, will she take this opportunity to criticise the present leader of the Labour party for his antisemitism and for presiding over a party that has done very little to rectify the issue? Will she also criticise her leader for his friendship with Hamas and other terrorists who have been directly involved in attacking British citizens?

Emily Thornberry

I have made it perfectly clear that it is my belief that our party has not dealt with antisemitism in the way that it should have, but I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and he is not antisemitic. I have nothing—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman will stop heckling me, I will move on to the second half of—

Mr Vara rose—

Emily Thornberry

I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman again, so he can sit down.

James Gray

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am a little unclear about the precise ruling on this matter, but a moment or two ago, the right hon. Lady, who speaks from the Front Bench for the Labour party, described the Prime Minister as a cowardly liar. Is that really within the highest standards that we use this House?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

I am sure that the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) will know that I was listening very carefully and my interpretation was that, had she said that any Member of this House was a cowardly lion, or words to that effect, I would have stopped her. I have given her the benefit of the doubt, in that she was drawing an allegory from a well-known work of fiction, but it is marginal, and I think she knows that.

Emily Thornberry

I was talking about a pair of Dominics, which explains why we are having today’s debate on the international aspects of the Queen’s Speech, which, Brexit and extradition policy aside, has absolutely nothing new to say on foreign policy, defence or international development, at a time when the world is crying out for new initiatives and global leadership on these issues. At a time when Her Majesty has got quite enough on her plate, I ask all her supporters in the House whether it was really necessary to waste her time asking her to read out the following lines, drafted by Downing Street:

“My Government will honour the Armed Forces Covenant…and the NATO commitment to spend at least two per cent of national income on defence.”

Nothing new, no substance behind it—that is a statement that sounds all too hollow to our armed forces families living on substandard salaries in substandard accommodation.

Let me continue:

“As the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, my Government will ensure that it continues to play a leading role in global affairs, defending its interests and promoting its values.”

Nothing new, no substance behind it, and it bears no relation to reality when it comes to our role in the world under this Government. Let me continue:

“My Government will be at the forefront of efforts to solve the…complex international security issues.”

Nothing new, no substance behind it, and it is at odds with a Government who cannot even explain the strategy for Syria, Libya or Yemen, Iran, Israel or Palestine, let alone the ongoing crisis with Iran.

There is more:

“My Government…will champion global free trade and work alongside international partners to solve the most pressing global challenges.”

Waffle, waffle, waffle—nothing new, no substance behind it—[Interruption.] Unfortunately, I am quoting Her Majesty, who had those words written for her by the people at No. 10—nothing new, no substance behind any of it, and an insult, when we consider how this Prime Minister actively acquiesced when his friend and hero, Donald Trump, started ducking all those global challenges and actively making them all worse, and told me that I was being pessimistic for warning as much.

Among all those vacuous, meaningless lines that Her Majesty was forced to read out, there is one of greater interest in the foreign policy section of the speech, which I would like to highlight:

“My Government will take steps to protect the integrity of democracy and the electoral system in the United Kingdom.”

Let us bear in mind that those words were drafted by Downing Street for our sovereign to read out in front of Parliament. That was a solemn promise from the Government, in Her Majesty’s name, to protect the integrity of democracy here in Britain. Yet here we are, still waiting—still waiting!—for the Government to publish the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russian interference with our democracy.

Shortly before the election, the Foreign Secretary stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that the delay was perfectly normal because it usually took six weeks for ISC reports to be published, although this report had already been cleared in full by the Committee and the intelligence services, and just needed to be signed off by Downing Street. Most important, of course, it needed to be signed off by the two architects of the leave campaign and renowned friends of Russian oligarchs, the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings.

Six weeks, the Foreign Secretary told us, but how long has Downing Street now been sitting on the report? I will tell you how long: 12 weeks and five days. Now we are told that it has been cleared for publication, but that can only happen when the new Intelligence and Security Committee is convened. On behalf of the former Chair of the ISC, Dominic Grieve, who is sadly no longer in the House, let me read on to the record his reaction to that news. He said:

“The fact that he”

—the Prime Minister—

“has been able to sanction its publication now shows that in fact it was perfectly possible to sanction its publication before parliament was dissolved…The reasons he gave at the time for non-publication were bogus.”

So there we have it: bogus arguments, bogus timetables, bogus excuses, and still no sign of the ISC report. Yet this Government have the barefaced cheek to ask Her Majesty to announce that they are protecting the integrity of our democracy.

In the absence of anything else of substance on foreign affairs in the Queen’s Speech, let me raise some of the other issues that were not mentioned, and ask the Minister who winds up the debate to address them. First, may I ask what on earth has happened to the Trump Administration’s so-called middle east plan? Has the Foreign Office still not had any sight of that plan? Is there even a plan to look at? Now that he is in a place of greater influence, perhaps the Prime Minister will press ahead with the international summit that he promised to convene as Foreign Secretary, so that we, and our fellow allies with an interest in the middle east, can spell out our red lines on the American plan. Or will he go one better, and use such a summit to demand that if the Trump Administration keep prevaricating, we and others will resume the role of honest broker between Israel and Palestinian that Donald Trump is clearly incapable of fulfilling?

Secondly, talking of honest brokers, may I ask—for what is now the fourth year running since I became shadow Defence Secretary—why the Government are still refusing to use the power vested in them by the United Nations to draft a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in Yemen, to be observed by all parties? Yemen has just started its second year at the top of the International Rescue Committee’s rankings for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. How many more years do its people need to suffer before the Government finally pull their finger out and do their job at the United Nations?

Thirdly—this is a related matter—it is now more than 15 months since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Last month, we saw the horrific spectacle in Riyadh of four junior Saudi operatives being sentenced to execution while all Bin Salman’s most senior aides were cleared of all charges. The Government have consistently asked us to have confidence that justice will be done by the Saudi authorities. Well, that was not justice. So I ask the Government, yet again, when they will publish their own assessment of who was responsible for ordering and carrying out the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and when they will deliver the “serious consequences” that were promised from the Dispatch Box

Fourthly, it was distressing last week to read the report of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact into the Foreign Office’s prevention of sexual violence initiative, which was intended to tackle the global use of rape as a weapon of war. We welcomed that initiative at the time, but we now read in the commission’s report that “ministerial interest waned” after William Hague left the Foreign Office—[Interruption.] That is a quote from the report, which goes on to say that

“staffing and funding levels dropped precipitously”.

The commitment to the campaign in London fell and a budget of £15 million and 34 staff in 2014 has fallen to £2 million and four workers, including the intern.

Catherine West

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress that she made earlier today. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot just talk the talk? This is about matching the resource to the priority, and sadly, violence against women and girls in areas of conflict does appear to have dropped down the agenda under this Government.

Emily Thornberry

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and the report confirms that. The budget has been cut, and the group of experts who are supposed to lead overseas support to the victims of sexual violence in war zones has been cut from 70 to 40. This is a damning indictment of a Government who have steadily deprioritised the importance of human rights since the departure of William Hague and who now treat them as an afterthought next to the vital importance of doing trade deals with human rights abusers. [Interruption.] If Foreign Office Ministers reject that charge, let them stand up and explain themselves over the downgrading of sexual violence as a priority.

Dominic Raab


Emily Thornberry

The right hon. Gentleman says that that is wrong. If he would like to get up and explain how it is that the budget has fallen to that extent and how that is not evidence that this is no longer being prioritised, he is welcome to intervene on me right now.

Dominic Raab

It is not true. We take issue with the report. There have been a whole series of initiatives to take this forward, and it remains a key priority and agenda item for the Government. We do not accept this, based on either the figures that the right hon. Lady has provided or the level of diplomatic work that has gone in. We will ensure that there is a fuller account, and I can write to her if that would be useful.

Emily Thornberry

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I would like to know whether it is right that, for example, the number of experts has dropped from 70 to 40. Could he perhaps tell us that? Is it right that the budget has fallen from £15 million to £2 million and that, instead of there being 34 staff, there are only four including an intern? What conclusions we can draw from that? Perhaps we can particularly focus on that, because it seems to be a damning indictment of this Government.

Dominic Raab

We have committed £46 million since 2012. Our upcoming international conference in November will bring together countries from around the world to focus on justice and accountability. On that basis alone, to say that this has dropped off the radar is clearly nonsense. We hosted the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict in June 2014. We are the only Government in the world to have a special representative for taking that forward, and the only Government in the world to have a dedicated team and funding focused on tackling conflict-related sexual violence. And because actions matter more than words, our team has completed more than 90 deployments to places from Libya to northern Iraq and the Syrian borders, and we look forward to continuing that crucial work. So I am afraid that the right hon. Lady has again got her facts wrong.

Emily Thornberry

It is interesting that, in answering my question, the right hon. Gentleman relies on spending that has happened since 2012. I accept that in 2014 the budget was £15 million and there were 34 staff. My point is that now, in 2020, under this Government, the budget is £2 million and there are four workers, one of whom is an intern. That is the point. We cannot just keep rolling back to previous things. My point is that this started well, but is now trailing off and is no longer a priority. That is an indictment of the current Government. This is what being held to account looks like—[Interruption.] The point is what they are doing now, today; that is what is important. They cannot rely on what happened eight years ago.

If I might move on, I have a fifth point, which is on Iran. I echo everything my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) said in response to the urgent question earlier. As he rightly said, the rest of the world cannot sit back and wait and see what happens. As we saw with the disgraceful shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner, we are now only one misdirected missile away from not just further appalling loss of life, but an escalation of violence and brinkmanship that could finally topple all of us into war with a country that is five times the size of Iraq and nine times the size of Syria and that has a population of 83 million people. That cannot be allowed to happen.

Hard as it is, I believe that the UN and the EU need to go back to the drawing board, get all the parties around the table, and discuss how we can revive the process of engagement, starting with getting the nuclear deal back on track. What actions are the Government taking to that end?

In closing—I will not take any further interventions—I said at the outset that I have been looking at my past debates with the current Prime Minister, and I note that he is to the art of prescience in foreign policy what Basil Fawlty was to customer service. I looked back at our Queen’s Speech debate in 2017—I believe it was the only one in which he took part as Foreign Secretary—and what is so depressing is that, just like today, I had to point out that there were no new policy initiatives to discuss: a total vacuum where British global leadership should be; no solutions on Iran, Yemen, Syria, North Korea or Libya; silence on Russia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan and the middle east; and a pathetic paucity of action on climate change.

I closed my speech two and half years ago with words that I will repeat now. Unlike the current Prime Minister, every word I said has been proven utterly true and is just as depressingly relevant today. I said:

“Why is…this Tory Queen’s Speech such a blank space with regard to foreign policy?…their sole foreign policy ambition is to stay in lockstep with Donald Trump, whatever hill he chooses to march us up next. That means we are left with a Government who no longer know their own mind on foreign policy because they are beholden to a President who keeps changing his…we could have a Britain that actually has a foreign policy of its own—a Britain ready once again to be a beacon of strength and security, prosperity and values for every country around the world. This Queen’s Speech does nothing to advance that. This Government are doing nothing to advance that.—[Official Report, 26 June 2017; Vol. 626, cc. 424-25.]

Two and a half years later, as someone once said, absolutely nothing has changed.