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18 July 2016

Angela Eagle and Owen Smith impress Labour MPs – but who’ll be the candidate?

After the Parliamentary Labour Party hustings, it is no clearer which challenger will face Jeremy Corbyn. 

By George Eaton

Labour MPs are agreed on the need for a “unity candidate” against Jeremy Corbyn. But they remain divided over who it should be. While Corbyn was “heard in silence” at this afternoon’s Parliamentary Labour Party hustings, both Angela Eagle and Owen Smith impressed MPs.

“Angela had the best lines,” (thought to be the work of stand-up comedian and former Harman aide Ayesha Hazarika), a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “But Owen had the passion and the policies.” Smith pledged to “stand aside” for Eagle if she won more support from MPs, a sign that he believes he is ahead. This commitment was unmatched by his rival, who quipped that “the person with the fewest nominations is Jeremy” and declared that “leadership is about courage, not backroom fixes”. Having made the initial challenge to Corbyn, and endured much abuse in return, Eagle is regarded by supporters as having earned the right to run.

Eagle emphasised her working class, northern background (“I haven’t learned my politics – I have lived it”) and called for a 10-year “Marshall Plan” for “left behind” communities. Her best line came on the brick recently thrown through her constituency office window. “When it comes to bricks and windows,” she said, “the Labour Party uses bricks to build houses and opens windows to a more tolerant society.” Eagle was also praised by MPs as the only candidate to mention the role of the private sector in the economy and to cite the threat posed by Ukip. 

Smith argued that he was best-placed to unite the party (“he knocked it out of the park on that,” a supporter said), reaffirmed his call for a referendum on the Brexit deal and warned that there was now “no such thing as a safe seat”. Chris Bryant, one of his senior supporters, told me afterwards: “I saw two people who can be leader and prime minister. I saw one who can unite and lead.” Smith’s backers argue that his soft left stance and opposition to the Iraq and Syria interventions (which Eagle voted for) gives him the best chance of winning. 

Corbyn was criticised for failing to answer a question from Mary Glindon on how he would unite the parliamentary party (speaking only of activists) and was derided for his new emphasis on “reaching out” (the very thing, opponents say, that he has failed to do).

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MPs are united on the need for Corbyn’s departure (more than 80 per cent having declared no confidence in him) but are divided on the best means of achieving it. Former leadership candidate Yvette Cooper proposed an “indicative ballot” among backbenchers to show whether Eagle or Smith had the greatest support. Others hope that the two rivals will do a deal and guarantee the other the post of shadow chancellor or shadow first secretary of state. With his opponents still divided, Corbyn can be confident that he will rule.