Stephen Man­gan and Emily Thorn­berry

talk Brexit, Blair and per­for­mance anx­i­ety

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

Emily Thorn­berry and Stephen Man­gan ar­rive at the Guardian’s Lon­don of­fice at ex­actly the same time, with a sim­i­lar air of fran­tic in­dus­try. Thorn­berry, sleep-de­prived af­ter a long night cel­e­brat­ing a Spec­ta­tor award for come­back of the year, is in the mid­dle of a packed day of in­ter­views. Man­gan is rush­ing be­tween a meet­ing with his pro­duc­tion com­pany and an­other with Sky Arts, for whom he’s pre­sent­ing a Por­trait Artist of the Year show later this month.

Both Thorn­berry and Man­gan stud­ied law at univer­sity, but their ca­reers took dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent paths. Thorn­berry spent 20 years as a bar­ris­ter, be­fore be­ing elected MP for Is­ling­ton South and Fins­bury in 2005, with a ma­jor­ity of 484; she has since in­creased this to a wal­lop­ing 20,263. Hav­ing served as shadow at­tor­ney gen­eral un­der Ed Miliband, she has held four posts un­der Jeremy Cor­byn, in­clud­ing shadow Brexit sec­re­tary and, since June 2016, shadow for­eign sec­re­tary.

Man­gan, mean­while, took law be­cause he was told act­ing was an im­pos­si­ble dream. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Cam­bridge, he went to RADA. He broke into tele­vi­sion as Adrian Mole in 2001, and went on to shows such as Green Wing, Episodes, The Split and his own pro­duc­tion, Hang Ups. Noth­ing sums up his range bet­ter than his re­cent stage work: Man­gan be­gan 2018 as the ter­ri­fy­ing in­truder Gold­berg in Pin­ter’s The Birth­day Party and will end it by nar­rat­ing Padding­ton sto­ries at the Royal Al­bert Hall.

In per­son, they are not the odd cou­ple you might ex­pect. Thorn­berry likes to laugh, ex­plo­sively, and Man­gan knows his pol­i­tics. Over the past cou­ple of years, he has be­come a pas­sion­ate critic of Brexit, a sub­ject that has been caus­ing the Labour party no small amount of angst. Tak­ing their seats in an of­fice over­look­ing one of the most rad­i­cally trans­formed ar­eas of Thorn­berry’s con­stituency, they brace them­selves for the ele­phant in the room. Do­rian Lynskey

Emily Thorn­berry Are you go­ing to start with the B-word?

Stephen Man­gan Well, un­for­tu­nately. How fed up are you with talk­ing about it?

ET [Laughs.] I’m fed up that it doesn’t go any­where. We’re stuck in the same place we’ve been for a cou­ple of years. We’ve just been watch­ing the psy­chodrama of the Tory party, fight­ing among them­selves and not look­ing at what’s good for the coun­try. I’m fed up that we don’t re­ally have any power.

SM We’re sit­ting here in your con­stituency.

I don’t need to tell you it has some of the worst con­cen­tra­tions of poverty in the UK.

ET Sixth worst.

SM Is there any ver­sion of Brexit that will help those peo­ple?

ET Our big­gest trad­ing partner is go­ing to have more dif­fi­cul­ties trad­ing with us. Ob­vi­ously the econ­omy is likely to get smaller, which will have an ef­fect on taxes, which will have an ef­fect on spend­ing, which will have an ef­fect on ser­vices. →

SM So is there a moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for sup­port­ing, or even fa­cil­i­tat­ing, Brexit?

ET I don’t want to be a part of un­der­min­ing democ­racy in the UK. We had a ref­er­en­dum.

I went up and down the coun­try and said to peo­ple, “This is a re­ally se­ri­ous de­ci­sion, we’re go­ing to do what you say, think about it.” And they said we’ve got to go. So what do you do?

SM But the Brexit that was sold is not the Brexit that’s be­ing de­liv­ered.

ET Well, I think peo­ple just voted to leave – not on any other de­tails. So what you do is say, “52% said we should leave and 48% said we should re­main, so the an­swer is we leave but we don’t go far.” That’s the only way you can re­ally hold the coun­try to­gether.

SM The mean­ing­ful vote is ap­proach­ing. I suppose in your ideal sce­nario the deal is voted down, an elec­tion is called and you get into power? What will Labour’s man­i­festo po­si­tion on Brexit be?

ET We would say we should do as we have been in­structed, which is to leave. We go back to Europe and say, “Look, let’s re­set our re­la­tion­ship. Let’s be grown up about this. You know the dif­fi­culty we’re in, so let’s try and fix this.”

SM It takes two to tango. The EU have said there is no scope for ma­jor rene­go­ti­a­tion – so how is your po­si­tion dif­fer­ent from the Tory po­si­tion?

ET The dif­fer­ence is that Theresa May had this dis­as­trous con­fer­ence speech, where she put down so many red lines that there was no way they were go­ing to be able to ne­go­ti­ate any­thing. Just think about David Davis. What was he do­ing go­ing out to Europe? Buy­ing Toblerones.

SM But isn’t there an in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tion at the heart of Brexit? We’re look­ing for the ben­e­fits of the sin­gle mar­ket and the cus­toms union, with­out be­long­ing to them. If at the next elec­tion you said, “The pol­icy we want to pur­sue will shrink the econ­omy, lower GDP, lose us jobs,” you wouldn’t get close to of­fice. But by sup­port­ing Brexit, that’s the pol­icy you’re lay­ing in front of peo­ple.

ET No, we would go into an elec­tion say­ing, “These ne­go­ti­a­tions have been a com­plete dog’s din­ner and we want to ne­go­ti­ate on this ba­sis…”

SM Over what timescale?

ET Well, when will the gen­eral elec­tion be?

SM But you need a plan.

ET OK. So Europe has said they’re not go­ing to ex­tend ar­ti­cle 50 un­less there’s a ma­jor change. Well, hav­ing a new gov­ern­ment is a ma­jor change. I think there’s a strong ar­gu­ment for us ex­tend­ing ar­ti­cle 50 if we have to. I also think – and it’s not Labour pol­icy – there’s an ar­gu­ment for us say­ing we’re go­ing to do the best we can, and if at the end of that it’s to the ad­van­tage of the coun­try to ask peo­ple what they think of it, then we can go for it.

SM Why not do it now?

ET The polling is not em­phat­i­cally in favour of re­main­ing. I would have thought by now the pub­lic would be at least 70% in favour, given what they’ve seen. And I think the rea­son they haven’t changed is be­cause what they hear is, “You’re stupid, you’re racist, you’ve been ma­nip­u­lated, your vote wasn’t valid” – and they feel in­sulted.

SM The Labour party’s over­whelm­ingly in favour of the Peo­ple’s Vote.

ET Well, Labour party mem­bers are over­whelm­ingly in favour of re­main­ing in the EU. And we can’t if we don’t get an em­phatic vote in favour. Let’s say we have a vote and they say again, we have to leave.

SM Then we leave.

ET No! Be­cause the sort of leave we’d then have would be ap­palling! It would be a li­cence for the hardest pos­si­ble Brexit.

SM But the Bri­tish pub­lic would have made that de­ci­sion with their eyes open. Not af­ter a cam­paign of lies, half-truths and pos­si­ble il­le­gal­ity.

ET There’s one thing I’m gen­uinely wor­ried about. What kind of cam­paign­ing would Farage do? What would the hard right do? And peo­ple say­ing: “We told that Lon­don elite that we wanted to leave. They’re not lis­ten­ing to us, we’ve got to make it even clearer.” I think it would be even more di­vi­sive.

SM But you’re fa­cil­i­tat­ing one of the big­gest acts of self-harm this coun­try’s ever seen.

ET But it’s some­thing the coun­try wants.

SM Well, that’s a mat­ter for de­bate. Theresa May went for her big man­date and didn’t get it. And with Labour’s am­bi­gu­ity dur­ing that elec­tion, try­ing to ap­peal to all sides, there seems to be a lack of clar­ity. I can see, po­lit­i­cally, why that might be use­ful – but isn’t now the time to lay out what we think is right and proper? ET If I was con­fi­dent that a ref­er­en­dum would re­sult in us re­main­ing and there not be­ing divi­sion in the coun­try, I would be ab­so­lutely fine about it. But pub­lic opin­ion seems to have shifted only a cou­ple of per­cent­age points. It’s re­ally hard, be­cause I do want to re­main and my con­stituents want to re­main. But it’s a ques­tion of try­ing to keep the coun­try to­gether.

SM Could you see your­self sup­port­ing a Peo­ple’s Vote?

ET Well, our pol­icy…

SM No, not your pol­icy. Could you per­son­ally see your­self sup­port­ing it? Yes or no, Emily? [Laughs.]

ET Well, what’s the ref­er­en­dum ques­tion?

SM Is there any form of ref­er­en­dum that you could see your­self sup­port­ing? You’re not go­ing to an­swer me, are you?

ET If there was one like be­fore, with leave and re­main, then I would vote re­main. But I don’t think that’s go­ing to be the na­ture of the ref­er­en­dum. So I don’t know. We want a gen­eral elec­tion, we want a chance to ne­go­ti­ate this prop­erly.

SM I’ll stop grilling you on Brexit now. At least it’s taken our mind off Trump. You’re prob­a­bly go­ing to be for­eign sec­re­tary soon. How are you go­ing to cope with that chump?

ET I think you just have to work around him. He’s a bully and there’s no point in try­ing to kow­tow to him or hold his hand. The midterms were re­ally en­cour­ag­ing. He’s the first pres­i­dent whose →

ap­proval rat­ing hasn’t gone above 50%. He’s pro­voked a lot of women to go into pol­i­tics. So the swing back is re­ally in­ter­est­ing. I’m hope­ful that he won’t get an­other term.

SM But the us-and-them­ness of pol­i­tics now is re­ally dispir­it­ing.

ET It is. So, last night I was out­side the build­ing where your “wife” worked in that se­ries you did about lawyers [The Split]. I was go­ing: I know that build­ing!

SM That’s the great thing about be­ing an ac­tor.

I get to be a lawyer for a few months and then go back to be­ing some­thing else.

ET And you stud­ied law?

SM Yeah. You?

ET I did 20 years as a bar­ris­ter. Largely crime – ac­tions against the po­lice, in­quests, any­thing with a jury, re­ally.

SM I was al­ways told at school, no one gets to be an ac­tor, so be a bar­ris­ter and you get to stand up and do a bit of act­ing. Is that true?

ET It’s a bit like be­ing an ac­tor. Your clerk is like your agent: you’re only good as your last case, and there’s al­ways this feel­ing of in­se­cu­rity, that there may not be an­other case.

SM For me, law was about pulling the emo­tion out of a sit­u­a­tion and look­ing at it more dis­pas­sion­ately.

ET It’s about paint­ing pic­tures, telling sto­ries, talk­ing about what mo­ti­vates peo­ple. Go­ing into pol­i­tics, there’s lots in com­mon.

SM You’ve cho­sen two re­ally well-re­garded pro­fes­sions.

ET [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ll be an es­tate agent next.

SM They’re both quite com­bat­ive. Do you like an ar­gu­ment?

ET Yes.

SM As an ac­tor, you’re paid to have a cer­tain amount of emo­tional vul­ner­a­bil­ity, but the job can be quite wear­ing on your psy­che – the re­jec­tion and be­ing judged. So you have to de­velop a thick skin but be as open and sen­si­tive as pos­si­ble.

ET Don’t you com­part­men­talise? If I get crit­i­cism from my friends or fam­ily it can be dev­as­tat­ing. Those who don’t know me, I don’t give a fly­ing fuck. There’ll al­ways be the haters. You must have the haters.

SM The older you get, the more you don’t care. The “stick to act­ing” thing is a non-starter. I’ll stick to act­ing if peo­ple stop hav­ing opin­ions about TV pro­grammes.

ET [Laughs.] Very good.

SM Ob­vi­ously ac­tors have big pro­files. Some­times you just feel like you can’t sit there and say noth­ing.

ET It can be help­ful to a cause if a big name signs ns up to it. I have lots of ac­tors in my con­stituency. . If a fa­mous con­stituent stands up and says some­thing and other peo­ple get in­volved, what’s wrong with that?

SM You’re seen as a pos­si­ble fu­ture leader of the e Labour party, if they ever get around to elect­ing a woman… ET [Laughs.]

SM Do you think about that? We all imag­ine that politi­cians have half an eye on pol­icy and ethics, and half an eye on their ca­reers.

ET I tend to live in the mo­ment.

SM So there’s no plan? That’s hard to be­lieve.

ET You do things as well as you pos­si­bly can. I shad­owed Boris Johnson. He spent all his time think­ing about be­ing prime minister and he was an ab­so­lutely ap­palling for­eign sec­re­tary – the worst we’ve ever had. Don’t you have the same with your ca­reer?

SM You can’t plan a ca­reer in act­ing. The jobs you turn down can be as im­por­tant as the jobs you take. My cri­te­ria is al­ways: would I watch this?

If I wouldn’t watch it, then I don’t do it.

ET Lots of your stuff uses im­pro­vi­sa­tion, doesn’t it? I love the idea, in Hang Ups, that you have no idea what the ac­tors are go­ing to say. How do you keep a straight face?

SM You don’t al­ways. Ac­tors are there to repli­cate a gen­uine in­stant re­ac­tion. That’s not easy when you’ve read a script 15 times, but when you’re im­pro­vis­ing it’s very easy. I think hu­mour is the best way of deal­ing with any hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. If you have a sense of hu­mour about your­self, you have a sense of per­spec­tive. How many laughs are there in a shadow cab­i­net meet­ing?

ET [Laughs.] Ac­tu­ally, we do laugh.

SM Who’s the fun­ni­est?

ET Well, some peo­ple are funny but they don’t mean to be. SM Who?

ET I’m not say­ing!

SM Is John McDon­nell a big gag man?

ET No, I don’t think John’s a big gag man but his deputy [Peter Dowd] is. I think the whole point is, you can have a sense of hu­mour and be sin­cere.

SM Some­times you’re talk­ing off the cuff and I imag­ine that’s a high-wire act be­cause you say the wrong thing and – boosh! – it’s re­ported ev­ery­where. I can see why politi­cians fall back on cer­tain re­hearsed re­sponses, but I can also see why the pub­lic gets frus­trated.

ET Yes. The pub­lic want us to be au­then­tic and real, but they also want us to be per­fect. I do think it’s eas­ier now that Jeremy’s leader, be­cause he is au­then­tic and that’s quite em­pow­er­ing.

SM Well, that’s par­tially true. You get the im­pres­sion that he is a man of prin­ci­ple, but you don’t al­ways feel you’re get­ting the full pic­ture. Like the whole an­ti­semitism row. It took a long time to deal with. Peo­ple start to ques­tion if he’s gen­uine in those pro­nounce­ments.

ET Yes, I think we didn’t deal with that well. We were like an­i­mals in the head­lights.

SM That has a knock-on ef­fect. Peo­ple think, if you can’t deal with a few cases of an­ti­semitism over a pe­riod of years, how are you go­ing to solve Brexit in six months?

ET I hear you. We are deal­ing with it.

SM Is there a dis­trust of the Tony Blair-style smooth­ness within this Labour party?

ET Yes.

SM Be­cause that was so ef­fec­tive, but was also seen as pos­si­bly disin­gen­u­ous and ma­nip­u­la­tive.

ET Cameron took a lot of his style from the way Tony Blair did things, and I think peo­ple, af­ter a while, just don’t trust that.

SM I’ve played Tony Blair twice. It was an ab­so­lute joy, be­cause he al­ways gave the im­pres­sion of be­ing aware that he was the star in his own movie. He knew he had charisma.

ET We moved into our house on the same day as the Blairs. Four lawyers mov­ing into the same cres­cent on the same day.

SM What sort of neigh­bours were they?

ET I’d see him with the kids in the play­ground but I didn’t want to go up to him and say the 1990s ver­sion of “Can I have a selfie?”

SM I look at Cameron now, in his mil­lion-pound gar­den shed, and he doesn’t know what to do. Tony Blair, too. What do you do next?

ET I didn’t get into pol­i­tics un­til I was 45. Cameron had nearly re­tired by that age. I’ve al­ready done be­ing a bar­ris­ter and be­ing a mum.

SM How old are your kids now?

ET Two of them are in their 20s and one’s 19.

SM What do they make of you be­ing such a high­pro­file fig­ure?

ET I think they find it a bit em­bar­rass­ing.

SM “Oh, Mum! Stop mak­ing speeches in the Houses of Par­lia­ment! Back a Peo­ple’s Vote, Mum!”

ET [Laughs.] …and we’re back! 

This con­ver­sa­tion, and those that fol­low, has been edited and abridged for length.

Emily Thorn­berry Shadow for­eign sec­re­tary

Can you see your­self sup­port­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum? Yes or no, Emily? Stephen Man­gan Manga Ac­tor

But it’s some­thing the coun­try wants

You’re fa­cil­i­tat­ing one of the big­gest acts of self-harm this coun­try has ever seen

How many laughs are there in a shadow cab­i­net meet­ing? Some peo­ple are funny but don’t mean to be

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