Attempts by moderate Labour MPs to stand a single “unity candidate” against leader Jeremy Corbyn have collapsed after Owen Smith announced he would mount a challenge for the leadership.
Angela Eagle, another Labour MP, mounted her own bid against the leader on Monday, meaning that the anti-Corbyn vote is now likely to be split during a contest that will take more than two months.
The news came just hours after Labour’s national executive committee ruled that Mr Corbyn does not need to collect the backing of 51 MPs or MEPs to stand in the impending contest: a hurdle that he would have struggled to clear.
Mr Smith, MP for Pontypridd and former shadow work and pensions secretary, announced his bid on Wednesday after claiming that Mr Corbyn had rejected a compromise plan to stop a party split.
He said he had made up his mind to run only in recent days, a claim that was undermined when John Mann, a backbench MP, said he had been approached to join a tentative Smith leadership campaign six months ago.
Mr Smith told the BBC there had been a “dramatic collapse of faith and confidence in Jeremy” in recent weeks.
He said that while Mr Corbyn was “a good man, with great Labour values” he is “not a leader who can lead us into an election and win for Labour”.
He added: “Working people in this country cannot afford to have a day like today when the Tories are popping champagne corks, and celebrating their coronation, and the prospect of a Labour government feels so distant.”
Quizzed on his key policy positions, Mr Smith said he would have voted against the Iraq war, although he was not in parliament at the time.
He is in favour of Trident renewal, an issue that deeply divides Labour, which will be the subject of a Commons vote on Monday.
Some MPs fear that having both Ms Eagle and Mr Smith in the contest will weaken their chances of toppling Mr Corbyn, who is still popular with the party’s grass roots.
Labour is locked in a civil war of historic proportions, just as the Tory party is reuniting under Theresa May as its new party leader.
The NEC decision on Tuesday evening means Mr Corbyn will automatically be on the ballot sheet in the leadership race, which concludes in late September.
But the NEC also imposed a January cut-off joining date for those able to vote in the ballot, so the more than 100,000 people who have joined the party since the Brexit referendum will not have a say in who is leader unless they pay £25 to be a “registered supporter”.
One moderate figure said Mr Corbyn had blundered by leaving the meeting for a “victory lap” before the relevant votes on the cut-off point.
“If he’d stayed, he would have won it and he’d have about 150,000 more votes,” he said. “It’s hubris. He is beatable now.”
Labour said in a statement on Tuesday evening: “The NEC has agreed that as the incumbent Leader Jeremy Corbyn will go forward on to the ballot without requiring nominations from the Parliamentary Labour party.”
Mr Corbyn later pledged to campaign “on all the things that matter”, and said anyone who had any disagreements should “come and talk about it”.
“I’m sure Labour MPs will understand that the party has to come together in order to present to the British people the options of a different and better way of doing things.”
Ms Eagle said on Twitter: “I’m glad Labour’s NEC has come to a decision. I welcome the contest ahead. And I am determined to win it.”
The NEC vote, after hours of deliberation, means that Ms Eagle now faces a difficult task to convince the party’s grass roots that she would be a better leader than Mr Corbyn.
The incumbent leader had on Sunday threatened to use legal means to challenge the decision if it had gone the opposite way.
Labour’s longstanding rules had been ambiguous about whether Mr Corbyn should be bound by the same conditions as other contenders, requiring 51 votes from MPs.
They were written at a time when no one had envisaged a situation where a sitting leader had less than a fifth of the support of his MPs.
Mr Corbyn and his allies at the union Unite had received legal advice suggesting that he would not need the 51 votes.
Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, had said that it would be “alien to the concept of natural justice” to not let the leader be automatically on the ballot paper.
Yet Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary, an ally of Tom Watson, deputy leader, had received a contradictory legal opinion.
A YouGov survey of union members on Tuesday found that 63 per cent thought Mr Corbyn was doing badly as leader.
Yet the NEC’s decision will be welcomed by many of Labour’s membership, which has swollen from fewer than 200,000 to almost 500,000 in the past year.
Many of those newcomers are ardent followers of Mr Corbyn, who they see as a clean break from years of compromise under the New Labour government.
They had seen Tuesday’s deliberations as an attempt by the party’s bureaucracy to lock out Mr Corbyn, who won a huge mandate from members last September, receiving 60 per cent of all votes cast in a field of five candidates.
The leadership challenge come just days after the biggest parliamentary uprising in modern history, with 63 front bench MPs standing down and only 40 out of 232 MPs backing Mr Corbyn in a confidence vote.
Mr Corbyn’s enemies had denied the idea of an attempted stitch-up, insisting that they were only demanding that the same rules should apply to all contestants for the leadership.
Ms Eagle launched her leadership challenge on Monday, saying that she could provide the “strong” leadership to heal the party and the country in “dangerous times”.
Mr Corbyn was elected last September after an election contest in which he had been seen as the fringe underdog. His old-fashioned brand of uncompromising socialism, tinged with pacifism, captured the hearts of many young idealists, as well as many leftwingers who had quit the party under its managerial New Labour years.