21 Nov 2014

Thornberry row: do too many tweets really make a t***?

Labour MP Emily Thornberry is not the first politician to drop herself in it on Twitter. Countless others have also been forced to repent after unburdening themselves on social media.

Emily Thornberry resigned from Labour’s front bench after tweeting a picture of a modern house in Rochester, festooned with England football flags, white van parked in the driveway.

The man living there, Dan Ware, interpreted this as snobbery – by a senior member of a party which was formed to represent the working classes.

The curse of Twitter had strruck again – five years after David Cameron told a radio interviewer: “Politicians do have to think about what we say… too many twits (tweets) might make a t***.”

Ms Thornberry’s faux pas was reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s discomfort at the 2010 election after being recorded saying a Labour supporter, Gillian Duffy, was a “bigoted woman” for raising the issue of immigration. Since then, Twitter has been there to give motor-mouth politicians a helping hand.

Thankfully for them, nothing they have said can equal Sally Bercow’s infamous “innocent face” tweet about the late Lord McAlpine, which the high court deemed libellous. But there has been controversy.

Business Minister Matt Hancock caused an outcry when he retweeted a homophobic limerick which said the Labour party was “full of queers”.

He apologised shortly afterwards, saying he “wholeheartedly” disagreed with the “offensive” comment someone else had made.

Lib Dem MP David Ward apologised after tweeting that if he lived in Gaza he would fire a rocket at Israel.

While Conservative MP Michael Fabricant said sorry for remarking that if he appeared in a television debate with journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, “I would either end up with a brain haemorrhage or by punching her in the throat”.

Helen Goodman apologised “unreservedly” after saying that the choice of clothes worn by newly promoted Conservative women “really is the most interesting thing about them”.

A few months later, one of these women, Defence Minister Anna Soubry, found herself apologising for saying in a television interview that Ukip leader Nigel Farage “looks like somebody put their finger up his bottom”.

Tory Robert Halfon’s tweet about “scumbag football hooligans” who had turned Covent Garden into a “disgusting cesspit” landed him in hot water with Sunderland fans, although the MP later made clear in his apology that his words were not aimed at supporters of any particular club.

When former Labour leader Neil Kinnock wrote a light-hearted letter to colleague Sadiq Khan proposing that 20-stone cabinet minister Eric Pickles should run a marathon, “so we have a helpful by-election”, he had not expected Mr Khan to post it on Twitter.

After doing so, the shadow justice secretary issed an apology, which Mr Pickles accepted in good grace.

Labour MP Austin Mitchell did not mince his words when he tweeted about Pfizer’s proposed takeover of AstraZeneca, saying that the prime minister “dare not stop Pfizer because he dare not offend the US in any way. Roll up rapists”.

The last word goes to shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, whose Labour colleague Diane Abbott had apologised after using Twitter to pronounce that “white people love playing ‘divide and rule’.”

Mr Umunna responded with some wisdom all politicians should take on board: “For us as politicians, Twitter is a very useful tool to communicate with people, but it has its perils.”