Labour MPs who wish to depose Jeremy Corbyn are divided over the most effective way to mount a challenge after Owen Smith collected enough nominations to put his name forward, effectively paralysing Angela Eagle as a unity candidate.
Sources said Smith, the former shadow work and pensions secretary, had collected 51 nominations. He is backed by MPs who want to give the deputy leader, Tom Watson, and the chief whip, Rosie Winterton, more time to encourage the Labour leader to step down of his own accord.
Senior figures in the party are still trying to persuade Corbyn to stand down, but are struggling to organise a meeting with the under-siege leader. They say his advisers are deliberately keeping him away from his critics in the parliamentary Labour party.
“We have to give them some more time; if Angela challenges him and we lose, it could split the party permanently,” a pro-Smith Labour MP said. “There is no need for a challenge to happen today, or even this week. It’s self-interest. That’s what’s motivated people to come out and back Owen.”
He said there was no consensus in the PLP about a single candidate to back and many feared Eagle’s vote in favour of the Iraq war in 2003 would significantly damage her vote among the party membership as it stands.
A former shadow cabinet minister said they believed delay was crucial to persuading Corbyn to stand down. “Today is clearly not the day, with the news about Boris. There’s huge weight behind the idea in the PLP that waiting is now the best thing. There’s still an urgency but it’s a question of strategy and how to best effect him standing down.”
The former shadow minister said MPs were detecting a shift in the tone of letters and emails from party members, away from Corbyn. “The longer Jeremy goes on, not challenging the Tories, not being effective, the more difficult it is for him to stay. As soon as there’s a challenger, his supporters will swing behind him.”
Watson has said he will not challenge Corbyn himself, but Labour sources hinted Smith was running as a proxy candidate, on behalf of Watson, to deter Eagle from challenging too soon.
Eagle, who was drafted into Corbyn’s top team as the shadow business minister and first secretary of state last year, is one of 20 members of the shadow cabinet to have quit since Sunday in protest at his leadership. She also has the 51 nominations required to run, members of her team said.
“This Boris-Theresa thing does mean there’s a bit too much white noise,” said one source close to Eagle. “But it’s clear that Angela’s ready to do it, and to get on with it.”
However, he added that there were still hopes Corbyn might choose to go of his own accord. “I think people on our side just need to let that stew a bit.”
Writing for Guardian, the popular Labour MP Lisa Nandy hinted that the search was still on for a unity candidate, although it was not clear whether she thought Eagle would fit the bill.
She wrote: “The battle lines in the leadership contest have been drawn, and both sides have signalled they are unwilling to stop. In taking this path we are consigning ourselves to irrelevance at a time when the sensible majority in the country – who want to see a sensible, measured, respectful conversation focused on the things that unite us – desperately need a voice.”
But Eagle was certainly seen as a frontrunner along with Watson, before he ended speculation by saying he would not challenge Corbyn directly, and still wished his leader would resign. At that point a large number of MPs seemed to be happy with either of the two candidates.
“Angela has support from all wings of the party to be a strong unity candidate. There is a time for calm and careful thinking for the sake of the country and our party. The party needs to unite – late-night egos on the terrace of the Commons are not the way forward,” said a politician backing Eagle.
Meanwhile, the party’s national executive committee will meet to vote on whether Corbyn ought to be automatically placed on the ballot or if he will have to collect the nominations of MPs.
One piece of legal advice, leaked to the Guardian, suggests that he does not need support, but can simply run again. But NEC sources have suggested that there is a second document, which has not been seen, showing the opposite, with many pointing to a 1980s contest in which Tony Benn challenged the then leader Neil Kinnock. They point out that Kinnock was expected to collect nominations.
This article was written by Jessica Elgot, Anushka Asthana and Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Thursday 30th June 2016 15.23 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010