UK Politics

Owen Smith: I'd offer Corbyn Labour president job

Owen Smith Image copyright Getty Images

Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith says if he wins he will offer Jeremy Corbyn the role of party president.

Mr Smith praised his rival but said he was "not a leader", saying Mr Corbyn had "sloganised" on austerity without setting out what he would do instead.

Mr Smith also described as "nonsense" criticism of him over the NHS, based on comments made while working for Pfizer.

Unnamed Corbyn allies in the Times seized upon the 2005 remarks that choice in the NHS was a "good thing".

The former shadow work and pensions secretary is now the only challenger to Mr Corbyn after the withdrawal of Angela Eagle on Tuesday.

Party members who joined Labour before 12 January, members of trade unions affiliated to Labour and registered supporters who signed up by paying £25 before the 17:00 deadline on Wednesday will be able to vote.

A total of 183,541 applications have been made to the Labour Party over the past 48 hours to sign up as registered supporters.

In interviews on Wednesday, Mr Smith said Labour would split if Mr Corbyn was re-elected, saying he had personally warned the leader the party was "teetering on the brink of extinction".

He said he was the candidate to "save the Labour Party" and make it a "credible government in waiting" as he faced a wide range of questions.

These included a focus on a 2005 press release by medical charity the King's Fund in which Mr Smith, then working for Pfizer, says that "we believe that choice is a good thing", adding that patients and healthcare professionals "should be at the heart of developing the agenda".

He was referring to a report about public attitudes to a range of ideas on healthcare provision, including care outside hospitals and further expansion of private providers. The study included focus groups exploring "the use of direct payments".

Mr Smith said the Times story, which included anonymous criticism of him as a "Blair lite" candidate, was a "a hatchet job" designed to damage his leadership campaign.

He said: "It is a gross exaggeration and extrapolation of one comment in a press release about a report commissioned by Pfizer before I worked there, at a period in which the last Labour government was using the word choice to describe getting private providers to do hip and knee and cataract operations."

He said he had "never advocated privatisation of the NHS".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader last September

Mr Smith was also asked about the time he called a police hotline - rather than 999 as previously reported - to get a comment for a story during his time working as a BBC researcher.

He acknowledged it had been a "stupid mistake".

He said he would be willing to press the nuclear button if elected as prime minister and said the government should consider nationalising the steel industry if necessary to save it.

He praised Mr Corbyn for helping Labour "rediscover its radical roots" and said he would offer his rival the role of party president if he won so he could "speak for the party" to the wider membership.

But he said Mr Corbyn was "not a leader", saying his rival had "sloganised" about being anti-austerity but had "never spelt out what he wants to spend".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Former Labour leader Ed Miliband wants the party to unite behind Owen Smith

Meanwhile, in a statement on his Facebook page, former leader Ed Miliband urged Labour supporters to register to vote in the leadership election and back Mr Smith.

"Labour isn't fated to be a disunited party arguing with each other. Turning inwards not outwards," Mr Miliband says.

"We can be a strong party, putting forward progressive ideas, challenging the Tories, and being in a position to win an election, reaching out to voters across the country, not talking to ourselves."

Mr Corbyn has announced some new appointments to his front bench, including shadow Brexit secretary Emily Thornberry, who is already the shadow foreign secretary.

Barry Gardiner becomes shadow international trade secretary, and Jon Trickett is shadow business, energy and industrial strategy secretary.

Mr Corbyn has acknowledged the party is divided but said he was proud of his achievements over the past 10 months and believed he should be given the chance to build on them.

"My vision is built around an economy that delivers for everyone, in every part of the country," he said. "Let's have a comradely debate this summer - and emerge stronger and more united to protect our communities and defeat this Conservative government."

Meanwhile, Ms Eagle's local Labour Party has been suspended amid allegations of bullying and abuse.

The former shadow business secretary, who was the first mount a challenge to Mr Corbyn, has faced unrest among activists in the Wallasey Constituency Labour Party.

"Bullying, intimidation, misogyny and homophobia have no place in the Labour Party and it is right that the national Labour Party now investigate this behaviour," she said.

A North West Labour Party spokesman said: "Any complaints of bullying or intimidation and allegations of misconduct are always taken very seriously."

Labour leadership election timetable

  • 18 July: Registration to sign up as a registered supporter to vote in the election opened at 17:00 BST
  • 19-20 July: The number of MP nominations for each candidate published
  • 20 July: Deadline for people to sign up as a registered supporter closes at 17:00 BST
  • 22 August: Ballot papers start to be sent out in the post (Labour Party members only) and by email
  • 21 September: Deadline for ballot papers to be returned is midday
  • 24 September: The result will be announced at a special conference in Liverpool

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