Read more: How does the Labour leadership contest work?
The vote on whether Britain should renew its Trident nuclear deterrent system has been and gone. At the debate in the Commons that preceded the vote on Monday, Theresa May looked authoritative, saying loudly and proudly that she would launch Trident if necessary. This was met with predictable outrage from the SNP, who are demanding that Trident be removed from Scotland. That made them look hypocritical since they want an independent Scotland to be a member of NATO—an alliance committed to the use of nuclear weapons if necessary.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party looked, well, it looked like it almost always does at the moment: divided, confused and at some distance from reality. The backbench—led ably by John Woodcock, MP for Barrow and Furness and Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s Defence Committee—put up a strong defence of Labour policy, which is commitment to the deterrent. Unfortunately all the good work was undermined by Jeremy Corbyn, who gave one of the worst parliamentary performances ever from an opposition leader.
It is not simply that after more than thirty years of practice he is unable to make a coherent case in favour of unilateral disarmament. Rather, he clearly had no idea what he was actually debating. He had to be reminded by a Labour MP that the debate was about the renewal of the boats that carry Trident not the renewal of the weapons system itself. Corbyn was baffled and bemused by this information.
Yet that debate has already been swept from the memory. Entirely in tune with the hectic pace of the events of recent weeks, the news agenda has moved on. Attention given to the government will now focus on Theresa May’s first Prime Minister’s Questions, which took place today. Attention given to Labour will focus on another twist in the tale of its current leadership race. Two candidates—Angela Eagle and Owen Smith—had put themselves forward to challenge Jeremy Corbyn. After the PLP held hustings Labour MPs then voted on which candidate they thought would be the best “unity” candidate. Smith polled 90 votes—more than half of the MPs who had expressed no confidence in Corbyn on 28th June. Eagle withdrew and Smith goes forward to the party. There is no doubt that he faces an uphill struggle. A YouGov poll of party members shows that the last few weeks—which, from Brexit to front bench resignations, were disastrous for Corbyn in conventional political terms—have increased his approval ratings amongst them. What does Smith have to do?
First, eliminate his negatives. He is doing this rather neatly. He has challenged the assertion that he is a Blairite—the standard Corbynista abuse for anyone who disagrees with the High Sparrow is that they are a Tory, or worse a Blairite—by praising Corbyn. Smith said: “Jeremy is owed a debt of gratitude for helping Labour to rediscover its radical roots.” But he cleverly balanced that by adding: “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. We’ve been on the sidelines for too long.” Not so much Blair-lite as Corbyn-plus.
Second, accentuate his positives. Which he has done by offering policies from the get-go. So far he has promised: the restoration of wage councils, a £200bn investment plan, a War Powers Act so that parliament can properly consider military action and, most importantly, he has floated the possibility of a second referendum on Brexit. This last has been done cleverly. Smith has said that we were right to trust the public to vote in the first referendum, so we can trust them to sign off the deal with a second one. The decision is more serious than buying a pig in a poke, after all.
This has the merit, as do all his main promises, of concerning a fight over the future rather than a fight over the past. It is not just that as a new MP (first elected in 2010) Smith has no baggage, but that he is free to take the best of the past and to shape a better future. Radicalism is his central claim and it is his greatest hope for victory. The many Labour members in London and the south east who were disillusioned by Corbyn’s lacklustre EU referendum campaign still want radical change. Owen Smith overtook Angela Eagle by painting her as the past— the establishment candidate, in effect. Now he must continue his insurgency. It is the only route to victory.