13/07/2017 07:01 BST | Updated 13/07/2017 11:21 BST

Chuka Umunna: Emily Thornberry's Attack On Me Over Brexit Vote Is Disrespectful

Umunna says he didn't criticise Thornberry during the St George's flag row

Emily Thornberry was “disrespectful” when she accused Labour MPs who rebelled over a Brexit vote as “virtue signaling”, according to former Shadow Cabinet colleague Chuka Umunna.

Some 74 Labour MPs and peers backed amendments to the Queen’s Speech calling for the UK to stay in the Single Market and customs union - going against instructions from Jeremy Corbyn.

Three Shadow Ministers were sacked because of their votes - with another quitting - and Thornberry accused the rebels of starting “faux battles” and being “silly.”

Deputy leader Tom Watson also described the amendment as “unhelpful”.

Speaking about the matter for the first time since the vote, Umunna told HuffPost UK he was disappointed with how Thornberry in particular had treated him, and contrasted it with the support he gave her after she tweeted out a picture of the St George’s flag outside a house in Kent during a 2014 by-election campaign.

In an interview in his constituency of Streatham in South London, Umunna hit back at suggestions he was deliberately trying to split the party or reopen the war between Labour MPs and Corbyn.

HuffPost UK
Chuka Umunna speaks to HuffPost UK in his Streatham constituency.

He said: “This isn’t about the leader of the Labour Party, this is not about the Labour Party.

“For me this issue goes far beyond party and far beyond any particular individual. It goes to the future of our nation and you have to put the national interest first in that situation.

“I think it was the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry who accused the 70-odd Parliamentarians who voted in the Queen’s Speech for amendments to keep us in the Single Market and the customs union.

“We were accused of virtue signaling. For me that’s disappointing.

“When Emily posted a picture of an England flag when she was the Shadow Attorney General on Twitter and there was an avalanche of comment about what she was signaling by doing so, I didn’t come out and criticise her and jump on the bandwagon, I actually dropped her a line to check that she and her family were OK given the barrage of comment and criticism she was attracting at that point.

“I’m disappointed because frankly when you do things you believe are right on a principled basis you at least I think can expect to have the benefit of the doubt of some of your colleagues, but actually it’s quite disrespectful of all those people who voted to keep us in the Single Market and also the customs union.”

If there’s anything that I’ve learnt from Jeremy it's you’ve got to do what you think is right. Chuka Umunna

HuffPost UK asked Umunna if he could understand why many in the Labour Party were frustrated with his decision to table the amendment, knowing it would provoke a rift.

He replied: “The irony is I was actually encouraged - I say ‘I’, my name was just the lead name on the amendment - but we were actually encouraged by frontbenchers and the frontbenchers who resigned were acutely aware of what would happen if this was put to a vote and they voted against the whip, but they were relaxed about that because for them it was a point of principle.

“I think if there’s anything that I’ve learnt from Jeremy it’s that you’ve got to do what you think is right, even if occasionally that’s going to ruffle a few feathers in your own party.

“He’s done that a lot more than me over the years because he’s been in Parliament a lot longer than me.

“I’ve not defied the whip very often at all - I’ve only done so I think 3 times and it’s on the EU issue and I have been consistent on this issue.

“When I left the Shadow Cabinet in 2015 by mutual agreement I had a conversation with Jeremy and we couldn’t agree on the party’s position on the EU then.

“My view and our discussion very much was whatever Cameron came back with in the renegotiation my view is I thought the party had to be arguing very strongly for us to stay in the European Union because that is what I believed was absolutely the right thing for this community.

“He thought we should reserve our position pending the renegotiation and I couldn’t agree to that.

“It was out of that we both agreed it probably wasn’t sensible to stay in the Shadow Cabinet because of that difference in view.

“For me this issue goes way back to 2015, I’ve been entirely consistent on it.”

Umunna was speaking the day after his new cross-party group aimed at stopping a hard Brexit was announced.

The former Shadow Business Secretary is co-chairing the All Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations alongside Tory MP Anna Soubry. Vice-chairs are Jo Swinson MP from the Liberal Democrats, Stephen Gethins MP from the SNP, Caroline Lucas MP from the Green Party, and Jonathan Edwards MP from Plaid Cymru.

Umunna believes the UK will only be able to retain the benefits of the Single Market if it remains a member, citing comments made by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier that that outcome “is not possible”.

Umunna also believes it is possible to stay a member of the Single Market and have great controls on immigration - one of the key motivations for millions of people voting leave in the 2016 referendum.

Yet speaking to HuffPost UK in June 2016, Umunna conceded that without reform of free movement rules the UK could not remain in the Single Market.

HuffPost UK put this point to Umunna in Streatham this week:


HuffPost UK: “European Union leaders, people like Angela Merkel, have said that if you’re in the Single Market you have to abide by the four freedoms, one of which of course is free movement. You’ve said in the past you wanted to see this changed to ‘fair movement’, you’ve also said: ‘If continuation of free movement is the price of Single Market membership then clearly we couldn’t remain in the Single Market.’”

Umunna: “You’re quoting yourself to me now!”

HuffPost UK: “I’m quoting what you said, Chuka!”

Umunna: “Of course you put to me the hypothetical that we continue with free movement, totally unreformed in its current form…”

HuffPost UK: “That’s what Angela Merkel said. No cherry picking…”

Umunna: “Hang on just a minute, you were talking and putting the hypothetical to me that free movement as it operates now cannot be changed. Clearly if you had no changes whatsoever it would be very hard to move forward.

“But what this ignores, and I’m not saying you were ignoring it, you put a hypothetical to me, but what that as a proposition ignores is first of all free movement is not unconditional at the moment, it is conditional.

“Secondly, as things stand at the moment, as a full member of the European Union, we can restrict free movement, and we haven’t. So if you come to this country and you don’t have work after three months and there’s no prospect of you getting work then you can be asked to leave. We do not require people to do that.

“When I look at other examples, there are other countries which are members of the Single Market which have been allowed to introduce quotas on the number of EU citizens coming and other EU treaties for good public policy reasons you can restrict the way that free movement works.

“So free movement is one of the freedoms, but there is a problem there as the name is misleading - it isn’t free movement, it’s conditional free movement that you have in the European Union and we can move towards that now if we want but we’ve chosen not to.”