Owen Smith and Angela Eagle are under growing pressure to decide which of them should challenge Jeremy Corbyn next week, amid calls from some Labour MPs for just one candidate to stand against the party’s leader.
A number of the party’s politicians told the Guardian that they wanted the two candidates to make a decision between them soon after nominations open on Monday night, following a hustings session earlier the same day in Westminster.
Yvette Cooper, a former shadow home secretary, warned that her time opposing Theresa May informed her that the new prime minister would not hesitate to call a general election before Christmas. “Labour has to be ready for it. We can’t kid ourselves that we have four years to sort ourselves out,” Cooper said.
“Angela and Owen are both really talented and could do the job. But I don’t think it would help to have an artificial battle between the two of them when they agree about so much.”
Cooper argued that the priority was for one candidate to go ahead with a strong Labour team that could challenge May’s new government. “The problem is, Jeremy is not able to do that,” she said. Other MPs agreed that it was imperative to avoid “friendly fire” between the Eagle and Owen camps.
The Guardian understands that initial discussions are under way between the two teams, with some party politicians urging the candidates to consider some sort of joint ticket. “Whoever steps back for the good of the party will win incredible kudos in the long term,” said one senior MP.
But although the camps appear to agree that it would be preferable for only one to run, neither has indicated that they will withdraw.
“Angela had the courage to take on Jeremy and is certain that she is the best choice to lead the party. She has served in various roles – as a member, activist, trade unionist, MP, minister and shadow minister – and has been a Labour party member for 40 years,” said a spokesman for Eagle.
MP Stephen Doughty said he was supporting Eagle because of her “decisive leadership, consistent principles and a hard-headed approach to the challenges we face post the Brexit referendum”.
But others claimed the momentum was now shifting towards Smith, who has set out his stall as a “newer generation” candidate who will be less tarred by criticism of New Labour.
Smith has also raised questions about the MPs supporting Eagle, causing anger with a claim in the Guardian that his opponent had been “supported by a lot of people who are further right on the spectrum of the Labour party than I am”.
Kate Green, who is co-chairing Smith’s campaign, said that an increasing number of MPs were deciding to support him. “The reason I’m backing Owen, and have done since he decided to run, is because we are united in believing that the overriding purpose of the Labour party – to win elections and secure power – requires us … to find the very best candidate who can unite the party, offer clear leadership, and set us on the road back to power.”
Smith and Eagle will speak to colleagues on Monday at 1pm; nominations will open at 7pm and stay open until 5pm on Wednesday.
Eagle will have to start from scratch, despite having previously collected the 51 names required to launch the contest in the first place. One source said she was certain to get “well in excess” of that figure again, while Smith’s team had already secured the necessary names.
Corbyn will also be able to attend the hustings, although he will automatically be on the ballot whether he collects nominations or not.
The Labour party will reveal the number of MPs backing each candidate on Tuesday evening, along with their names, at which point either Smith or Eagle may be encouraged to drop out.
In an email to MPs, Iain McNicol, the party’s general secretary, wrote about a “marked increase in reports of intimidation and threatening behaviour taking place at party meetings”. He said the decision to suspend normal meetings at constituency and branch level during the contest was taken because of a “duty of care for individuals who feel that their safety is threatened”.
The leadership contest, the rules of which were decided by the national executive committee after a tense meeting earlier this week, has caused anger on all sides and is now subject to more than one legal challenge.
Labour donor Michael Foster is trying to reverse a decision to place Corbyn on the ballot regardless of whether he collects nominations. There is also a pending challenge to the decision to block more than 130,000 people who have joined the party in recent months from voting in the ballot. A leading London law firm is preparing to take a case which has over 2,000 potential claimants, who say they joined the party to participate in the leadership contest, and that a webpage confirmed that would be possible.
The coup against the current leadership first resulted in MPs expecting either Tom Watson, the deputy leader, or Eagle to challenge Corbyn. When Watson ruled himself out, many swung behind Eagle, urging her to stand.
Some of her supporters are furious with the way Smith has entered the race, saying that in doing so he is falsely portraying Eagle as further to the right politically. They have also hit back at his claim that he opposed the Iraq war, highlighting a 2006 interview in which he said there was a “valuable tradition” of engagement by Britain to remove dictators.
They have also questioned his suggestion that he was trying to find a peaceful solution with Corbyn rather than run himself, pointing to a tweet in which Labour MP John Mann claimed he had been asked if he would back a Smith candidacy six months ago.
A few MPs have argued that there could be some benefit to having two candidates, as that would avoid the contest appearing to be a stitch-up by the parliamentary Labour party against Corbyn. But the overwhelming call was for unity, with warnings that tensions were already being blown open within the PLP.
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