The Tories will elect their second female leader (and prime minister) before Labour has elected its first. For many opposition MPs, this statistic is a point of shame. Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman held the position for temporary spells but never has the UK’s principal progressive party elected a woman. It is an unarguable truth that what most unites Labour’s former leaders is their sex.
As discussion continues over whether Angela Eagle or Owen Smith should be “the unity candidate” against Jeremy Corbyn (assuming there is a contest), this fact should aid Eagle. MPs currently undecided between them may flinch at the prospect of an all-male leadership election. Both Eagle and Smith have the support required to make the ballot (50 MP/MEP nominations) but there is no official process to decide who goes forward (an MPs’ hustings has been floated). Eagle, who deputised for Corbyn at PMQs, is well-regarded among the PLP and has attracted backers from all wings, including, as I revealed, Peter Mandelson. But some fear that her past support for the Iraq and Syria interventions will hinder her chances of beating Corbyn.
Whoever runs, neither Eagle nor Smith will challenge Corbyn until next week at the earliest. Both have agreed to halt their bids while Tom Watson talks to trade union leaders in a bid to negotiate Corbyn’s departure. Asked earlier today when she would stand, Eagle simply replied: “Look, the country doesn’t have an effective opposition at the moment. Jeremy Corbyn needs to go.” Smith, who first revealed his leadership ambitions when I interviewed him in January, said: “I stand ready to do anything I can to save and serve the party.” The former shadow work and pensions secretry added: “I believe that all of us whose priority is to restore unity in the Labour movement and give us a chance to defeat our only true enemy, the Tories, should give these talks every chance to succeed. That is what I intend to do and I urge all my colleagues to do likewise.”
Eagle’s supporters hope that the prospect of a female prime minister (and a female US president) will spur Labour members to finally elect a woman. But a significant number of Corbyn supporters regard the issue as an irrelevance. Even now, it would be unwise to assume that where the Tories lead, Labour will follow.