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All-male contest for Labour leadership as Eagle pulls out to back Smith

Published 19/07/2016

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks in the House of Commons
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks in the House of Commons

Labour is set for an all-male leadership contest after Angela Eagle withdrew to offer her support to Owen Smith as a "unity candidate" to take on Jeremy Corbyn.

Ms Eagle, who was first to challenge the Labour leader's position on July 11, stepped down after it became apparent that Pontypridd MP Mr Smith was set to outstrip her in the race for nominations from MPs and MEPs.

Mr Smith said he planned to work "side-by-side" with Ms Eagle in the contest, which ends on September 24, and would make her "my right-hand woman" if he was successful in ousting Mr Corbyn.

With 24 hours to go to the 5pm Wednesday deadline for nominations, former shadow work and pensions secretary Mr Smith had amassed the support of 88 MPs and two MEPs - easily passing the threshold of 51 required to get on to the ballot paper.

Among his backers were ex-leader Ed Miliband and former interim leader Dame Margaret Beckett, who last year said she had been a "moron" to nominate Mr Corbyn to broaden the debate, without having any intention of voting for him.

Thanks to a decision by Labour's ruling National Executive Committee, Mr Corbyn, as incumbent leader, did not have to gather nominations to take part. Having recently lost a confidence vote among his own MPs by 172 to 40, he is thought likely to have struggled to reach the 51 figure. It was only with "sympathy nominations" from Dame Margaret and others that he achieved the lower threshold of 36 needed to stand to become Mr Miliband's successor last year.

Ms Eagle is understood to have secured enough nominations to join the race, but was expected to finish around 10 short of Mr Smith's tally by the end of Wednesday. It is thought that her decision to withdraw early was taken to prevent the publication of names of her backers and avoid the creation of rival camps on the anti-Corbyn side.

Speaking at Westminster minutes before the publication of nominations, the Wallasey MP said that while there had been "quite a narrow gap" between her and Mr Smith, she had concluded it was in Labour's best interests that she dropped out.

"We have a Labour Party at the moment that is not working, we've got a leader that doesn't have the confidence of his Members of Parliament and isn't reaching out to the country," she said.

"We need to have a strong and united Labour Party so we can be a good opposition, take the fight to the Conservative Government and heal our country.

"So I am announcing tonight that I will be supporting Owen in that endeavour with all my enthusiasm and might."

Mr Smith said: " I will want to work side-by-side with Angela throughout this contest. I want Angela to be at my right hand. I need Angela to work alongside me in this contest and in the years that follow it.

"She is a great Labour woman and I absolutely cannot do without her in what will be a very difficult few months. Angela is a star in the Labour firmament and she will be at my right hand throughout this contest, and if I am successful thereafter, Angela will be alongside me as my right-hand woman."

Mr Smith quit the shadow cabinet along with Ms Eagle and many others following the EU referendum in June and announced his candidacy for the leadership two days after her. He is regarded as being politically to the left of the former shadow business secretary.

He said: "I am just as radical as Jeremy Corbyn. I think Jeremy is owed a debt of gratitude for helping Labour rediscover its radical roots, but we do need a new generation of Labour men and women to take this party forward, to get us ready for government once more."

Mr Smith vowed to win over members "street by street, town by town, meeting by meeting" by demonstrating that he could lead a "credible, radical government-in-waiting".

"I'm going to take the fight out on to the streets and make sure that I can persuade them that I can be not just the next Labour leader, but a Labour prime minister-in-waiting," he said.

In a candidate's statement on the Labour website, Mr Corbyn acknowledged that "o ur party is divided".

He added: "We need to use this contest to bring people together around strong policies to turn our fire on to the Tory Government. There must be no personal abuse or threatening behaviour, which undermines the democracy we, as socialists, cherish - democracy which I as leader will extend in our party and across the country."

With strong support among grassroots members and registered supporters, a poll has suggested Mr Corbyn could be on course for an easy victory over Mr Smith. The YouGov survey for The Times put the current leader on 56%, against 34% for Mr Smith.

Anyone signed up as a Labour member before January 12 will get a vote in the leadership ballot. Others can secure a vote by paying £25 to become a registered supporter before 5pm on Wednesday.

Labour MP Jess Phillips, who resigned as a parliamentary aide in protest at Mr Corbyn's leadership and backed Ms Eagle to take his job, said she was "disappointed" that there would be no female candidate on the ballot paper.

But she said she was now backing Mr Smith "100%" and believed he had "every chance" of winning the contest, adding: "Let's go nine out of 10, why not? Let's be optimistic."

The Birmingham Yardley MP told Channel 4 News she would find it "incredibly difficult" to continue as a Labour MP if Mr Corbyn won.

But she said: "I won't be crossing the floor any time soon, I can guarantee you that. No matter how many people want to call me a Red Tory, the day I would join the Tories will never, ever, ever happen."

Asked if she would sit as an Independent rather than serve under Mr Corbyn, Ms Phillips said: "I think I'm going to wait and see what happens.

"He has crossed a couple of red lines for me and I would find it very difficult to fall in line with a further Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party.

"But we are all grown-ups, and some of us will put aside our own personal feelings, as Angela did today. I just wish Jeremy Corbyn would do the same."

Smith backer Stephen Kinnock insisted he had heard of no plans for Labour to split if Mr Corbyn held onto the leadership.

"I have not had a single conversation about the party splitting," Mr Kinnock told BBC2's Newsnight.

Asked what he would do if Mr Corbyn won, the Aberavon MP said: "Those of us who have given a motion of no confidence will be honoured to serve our constituents from the backbenches, and it will be up to the leader to figure out how he forms a credible and effective opposition. I see it as a very difficult challenge for him to face."

James Schneider, of the Corbyn-backing Momentum group, told Newsnight: "Everybody should accept the result. We've got a democratic election and then whoever wins, we should get behind whoever is supported and move forward as a party.

"I think what we need to see at the end of the leadership election is as many MPs as possible working behind the leader, whichever one is elected, and also working with the party members."

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