Thornberry was born in Guildford, Surrey on 27 June 1960. Her parents were Sallie Thornberry, a teacher, and Cedric Thornberry, at the time teaching international law at the London School of Economics, and later a United Nations Assistant Secretary-General. When Thornberry was seven, her parents divorced and she had to leave their home with her mother and two brothers. After this, she relied on free school meals and food parcels, and their cats were euthanised to save money. Her mother later became a Labour councillor and mayor, and her father stood as the Labour candidate for Guildford in the 1966 general election.
She failed the eleven-plus exam, so attended a secondary modern school. She left to live with her father when she was fifteen until he left without warning to work for the United Nations when she was seventeen. She worked as a cleaner and a barmaid in London alongside resitting her O-Levels and taking her A-Levels. She went on to study law at the University of Kent in Canterbury, graduating in 1982. She was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn and practised as a barrister specialising in human rights law from 1985 to 2005 under Michael Mansfield at Tooks Chambers.
Thornberry joined the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1985. In the late 1980s, she became a friend of Waheed Alli, and persuaded him to join the Labour Party.
In the 2001 general election, she stood as the Labour candidate in Canterbury, but was defeated by the Conservative incumbent, Julian Brazier.
Following the decision of Chris Smith not to stand again, Thornberry was selected as the Labour candidate for Islington South and Finsbury for the 2005 general election through an all-women shortlist of prospective candidates. She was elected to Parliament with a majority of 484. Nick Smith (who subsequently was elected to Parliament representing Blaenau Gwent) served as her election agent.
Early Parliamentary Career
Thornberry made her maiden speech in the House of Commons on 24 May 2005. In Parliament, she has been a member of the Environmental Audit Committee and was on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee during the 2005–10 Parliament. She has served as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Choice and Sexual Health Group.
In 2006, Thornberry was criticised by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Philip Mawer for adding a quote from herself into a news release by the Electoral Commission. She was found not to have broken the Parliamentary code of conduct.
Thornberry's main interests since becoming an MP have been in health, housing, the environment and equality. She has also spoken on the need for more affordable housing, particularly in Islington. In 2006, Thornberry introduced the Housing Association Bill, a Private Member's Bill which sought to improve the control of housing association tenants over their landlords. Many of the ideas from this bill were taken up by the Cave Review. On environmental matters, Thornberry worked with Friends of the Earth and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to campaign for a Climate Change Bill and a Marine Bill. In 2006, Thornberry won the ePolitix Award for Environment Champion of the Year after being nominated by WWF.
In 2008, Thornberry supported a change in the law to allow single women and lesbian couples to seek in vitro fertilisation treatment.
In 2009, she was appointed as a ministerial aide in the Department of Energy and Climate Change and attended the Copenhagen Summit in December that year with Joan Ruddock and Ed Miliband.
Opposition under Ed Miliband (2010–15)
In May 2010, Thornberry was returned as MP for Islington South and Finsbury with an increased majority, in a seat identified as the Liberal Democrats' top target in England for the 2010 general election.
Thornberry was promoted to Shadow Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change in May 2010. In the role she shadowed Charles Hendry. Thornberry missed out on a place in Labour's shadow cabinet, then elected by Labour MPs, by one vote. She was instead promoted to the role of shadow care minister under the shadow health secretary John Healey.
As shadow care minister, Thornberry criticised the coalition government's lack of action over failing care home operator Southern Cross, calling for action and that the government put in place a plan B should the operator fail. She criticised the government over the Winterborne View care home abuse scandal, calling for an investigation into the affair. In April 2011, Thornberry surveyed all the local government directors of adult social care and highlighted the pressures on care for the elderly by the coalition government's cuts to local authority funds.
Thornberry was appointed shadow attorney general in October 2011, in which capacity she attended shadow cabinet meetings. Thornberry called for action by Dominic Grieve over Applied Language Solutions' failure to provide interpreters for court proceedings, and called on the attorney general to ensure that allegations of bribery involving Bernie Ecclestone were properly investigated.
In 2011, Thornberry challenged David Cameron over his false claims about wages at Islington Council, campaigning against government measures which Thornberry claimed to have exacerbated child poverty in Islington, and answering over 1,000 enquiries a month from constituents.
Thornberry resigned her shadow cabinet position on 20 November 2014, shortly after polls closed in the Rochester and Strood by-election. Earlier in the day, she had received criticism after tweeting a photograph of a house in the constituency adorned with three flags of St George and the owner's white van parked outside on the driveway, under the caption "Image from #Rochester", provoking accusations of snobbery. She was criticised by fellow Labour Party MPs, including leader Ed Miliband who said her tweet conveyed a "sense of disrespect", Chris Bryant who said that it broke the "first rule of politics" and Simon Danczuk who said that the party had been "hijacked by the north London liberal elite".
Opposition under Jeremy Corbyn (2015–2019)
Thornberry giving her Shadow Foreign Secretary speech at the 2016 Labour Party Conference
In September 2015, she was appointed as the shadow minister for employment by the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. She was promoted to shadow defence secretary in January 2016, replacing Maria Eagle. Thornberry advocated spending money on the army rather than on the UK's Trident nuclear programme. On being appointed, Thornberry was interviewed by the British Forces Broadcasting Service, where she defended her appointment, saying she had "quite a lot more experience than people might think." During her role as shadow defence secretary, Thornberry conducted a review of defence policy, including the role of the nuclear deterrent, which was delayed following the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum. During a private Labour discussion about the nuclear deterrent, Thornberry asked what "Defcon One", a status of the United States nuclear defence rating, meant.
Thornberry was promoted to shadow foreign secretary in June 2016 after Corbyn fired Hilary Benn. She held the role of shadow Brexit secretary concurrently until Keir Starmer took on the role later that year. She accused Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan of sexism after he asked her to name French minister of foreign affairs and international development, Jean-Marc Ayrault and the president of South Korea, which she was unable to do. Following the 2017 general election, she was given the additional role of shadow first secretary of state.
Thornberry opposed Britain's involvement in the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen against the Shia Houthis. She said that "while Saudi Arabia will remain a valued strategic, security and economic ally in the years to come, our support for their forces in Yemen must be suspended until the alleged violations of international humanitarian law in that conflict have been fully and independently investigated."
In May 2018 Thornberry said support in Syria for the country's president, Bashar al-Assad, had been “underestimated” in the West. In October 2018 Thornberry criticised Theresa May's government's response to Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance as "too little, too late". She said: "Imagine how this government would have reacted if either Russia or Iran had abducted–and in all likelihood murdered–one of their dissident journalists within the sovereign territory of another country."
After Corbyn announced he was stepping down as leader, Thornberry was the first person to officially announce that she would be running for the leadership of the Labour Party.
Thornberry, Corbyn and local councillors present Yvette Cooper with a petition from Islington residents for more affordable housing, 19 October 2006
Thornberry's constituency falls within the London Borough of Islington, one of the most deprived areas of the country with disproportionately high house prices and private sector rents. She has supported measures by Islington Council to free up under-occupied homes by supporting tenants to downsize and to stop foreign investors from buying new homes and leaving them empty. She has also called for a greater degree of control over private sector rents and more support for social house-building. Thornberry has frequently campaigned for a greater commitment to affordable and social housing. She was criticised when the local Islington Tribune newspaper discovered that her husband had bought a former social house which was being rented out to her aides. Thornberry said the purchase was "not about property speculation".
In 2015 Thornberry clashed with Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, over the proposed redevelopments of the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, the sorting office run by the Royal Mail, and the Clerkenwell Fire Station, both in her constituency. Camden and Islington councils sought to require a high proportion of the resulting new homes to be made available for social rent, but Johnson overturned this and allowed homes designated as "affordable" to charge rents of up to 80 percent of market rates. Thornberry criticised Johnson, describing his definition of affordability as "nonsense", and called for at least 50% of homes in the new developments to be made available for social rent.
Statue of Emily Davison
In 2013, the 100th anniversary of the death of the suffragette Emily Davison, Thornberry called for a statue commemorating Davison in Parliament. She arranged a public meeting to discuss options for a memorial, attended by around 800 people, and settled on the idea of a statue as an appropriate memorial, pointing out that there were very few statues of female politicians and activists in Parliament.
In March 2015, Thornberry launched a campaign for a new Equal Pay Act. She said that, 45 years after the original Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, women still earned 19% less than men on average. She called for "a profound culture change and radical legislation" to close the pay gap, and recommended measures to require companies where women make a successful complaint of pay discrimination to audit their practices and implement plans to ensure that men and women are paid equally for equal work. She further argued for measures to make it easier to negotiate settlements in equal pay cases, for improved access to justice by waiving tribunal fees for a limited period, and to close loopholes whereby outsourcing and insecure working conditions often lead to unequal pay for women.