The challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Britain’s Labour Party took an interesting turn yesterday when Angela Eagle dropped out of the race and threw her support behind fellow MP Owen Smith after Smith earned more support in ballots cast by the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Eagle’s candidacy crashed and burned just over a week after she launched her bid. Her campaign began inauspiciously as that same day, it was announced that Theresa May would become Britain’s new PM after Andrea Leadsom withdrew her bid for the Tory leadership. This development left journalists utterly uninterested in Eagle’s announcement and none of them had any questions for her following her press conference.
Smith announced his intention to run 48 hours later. While many in Labour wanted a female leader (they’ve had none while the Tories now have two), Smith resonated with Labour MPs who while dismayed with Corbyn also wanted someone with no ties to Tony Blair’s government. Smith was elected in 2010 when David Cameron’s Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power while Eagle has been an MP for nearly 25 years and held cabinet positions in both the governments of Blair and Gordon Brown. Her biggest liability was her support for the War in Iraq. While a majority of Democrats have forgiven Hillary Clinton for her initial support of the War in Iraq, the British have not been so forgiving of Blair. Earlier this month, a public inquiry into Britain’s involvement in Iraq led by Sir John Chilcot lambasted Blair’s conduct. With Blairism out of favor, eagle’s support for the war made her position untenable.
Of course, Smith has his work cut out for him. While Corbyn is held with contempt by the Parliamentary Labour Party, he is beloved by its membership. Smith knows this and vows, “I’m going to be just as radical as Jeremy Corbyn.” Hopefully this radicalism doesn’t include referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as friends. To give you an idea of how much Smith wants to be on the good side of Corbyn and his fans, Smith has offered Corbyn the party’s presidency if he his successful in supplanting him.
But I doubt this will come to pass. Corbyn is as popular with Labourites as Donald Trump is with Republicans. Corbyn has been on the job since September and I doubt Labour will remove him after only a year when they convene in Liverpool from September 25-28.
If that is the case what happens with the majority of Labour MPs who don’t support Corbyn? Will they fall in line or will they revolt as some Labour MPs did forming the Social Democratic Party in protest over the hard left tenor under Michael Foot during the early years of the Thatcher government? Corbyn, like Foot before him, supported unilateral nuclear disarmament. However, Foot and company wanted to withdraw from the EEC. But now that Britain has voted to leave the EU this is a far more complicated question.
How Labour MPs respond to a Corbyn victory will depend a great deal on the performance of Theresa May during her first months in office. If May has a honeymoon, they might be inclined to split. But if she stumbles they might stick with Corbyn albeit grudgingly. Even if May doesn’t make a good account of herself there’s no guarantee that Corbyn will perform well or that his party membership would engage in the kind of anti-Semitic behavior which has driven British Jews to the Tories.
But given the volatility of British politics this decade, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Owen Smith could pull off an upset. If he does, Labour instantly becomes far more electorally viable even if he does promise to be as radical as Jeremy Corbyn.
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