Eagle, the former shadow business secretary, said she would back Smith in the bid to lead the party after she attracted 72 nominations from MPs and MEPs, 18 below Smith’s 90.
Eagle made her move before the nomination process officially ends at 5pm on Wednesday to allow the party’s MPs who oppose Corbyn to focus their attention on signing up registered supporters. Teams backing Corbyn and those hoping to remove him have until Wednesday afternoon to persuade people to pay the controversial £25 fee, agreed by the party’s national executive committee, in order to be able to vote in the leadership contest.
She said that she would back Smith will “all my enthusiasm and might” and said the pair would be “in lockstep together”.
After thanking her supporters, she said: “Owen Smith has a lead and I think it is in the best interests of the Labour party that we now come together so that we can have one candidate. So I’m announcing that I’m withdrawing from this race and supporting Owen.”
She called on Labour supporters who want the party to be an effective opposition to take on the Tories and win to sign up as registered supporters before 5pm on Wednesday so they could vote in the contest.
“We have a Labour party that is not working, we have a leader that doesn’t have the confidence of his members of parliament and isn’t reaching out to the country,” added Eagle. “We need to have a strong and united Labour party so we can take the fight to the Conservative government and heal our country.”
A source in the Eagle camp said the contest was close, and might have been closer by the end of Wednesday, but she had moved quickly to allow MPs to “unite without rancour”.
The Guardian understands that the two camps received the names half an hour before the 5pm publication point, with Eagle’s team taking the decision to pull out of the race because of the disparity.
The numbers were not officially published, but the Guardian understands that Smith’s nominations were made up of 88 MPs and 2 MEPs, while Eagle had 63 MPs and 7 MEPs, meaning he had a lead of 25 among Westminster politicians.
Both candidates have been under pressure because of an overwhelming desire within the PLP for a single candidate to take on Corbyn during the race which will stretch over the summer. Some had expected Eagle to stand down earlier in the day because of rumours that Smith was well in the lead, but she held out until receiving the numbers.
The contest was triggered by Eagle, who argued that she deserved the nominations of colleagues because of her courage in putting herself forward but also because she is a woman from a working-class family in the north, who has performed well in PMQs.
Smith later entered the race, with the backing of MPs such as Lisa Nandy and Kate Green on the soft left of the party, arguing that Eagle had attracted too much support from the right of the party. He has also claimed that a “newer generation” candidate would have a better chance against Corbyn.
All three candidates in the leadership race appeared before colleagues in a hustings on Monday afternoon, but only Eagle and Smith required nominations after the NEC decided Corbyn should be automatically placed on the ballot.
At the hustings, when Yvette Cooper asked the two challengers if either was prepared to step aside if they won lower levels of support from MPs, Eagle said she would not make “backroom deals”. But under pressure from MPs, she later made a deal, hammered out between the two candidates and their closest MPs and aides, under which the pair will end up running as part of a joint ticket.
Her supporters have complained about what they say are unfair attempts to push her into stepping aside. But others said the momentum was shifting to Smith because he was seen as more electable by Labour members who overwhelmingly backed Corbyn last summer.
One Smith supporter had said there was a pattern emerging which showed MPs who had been in Ed Miliband’s frontbench or in government were supporting Eagle, while the newer generation of MPs from the 2010 intake onwards were voting for Smith. “I think there is a sense those people may want a bit of a restoration project, there is certainly that dynamic there,” the source said. “But the most important thing is there is unity across that divide: if Owen wins he should offer Angela a very, very senior position.”
Emma Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton, told the Guardian she had thought Eagle should be chosen “because she’s got the experience that we need and also she’s a northern woman from a working class family”. But she admitted she wanted a single candidate, adding she was now fully behind Smith.
Two MPs have gone to great lengths to cast their nomination preferences. Jim McMahon and Judith Cummins sent their choice in from mid-air over the Atlantic, using their plane’s Wi-Fi, believed to be a first for the PLP. Both voted for Smith.
This article was written by Anushka Asthana and Jessica Elgot, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 19th July 2016 17.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010