Owen Smith desperately needs to make up ground in Labour’s leadership contest (bookies’ odds, perhaps more reliable than the polls, suggest Corbyn has an 84 per cent chance of winning next month). What’s more, with voting soon drawing to a close, he has less and less time to do so. Which all explains why last night’s leadership hustings in Glasgow was much more bitter than any of the others which came before it. The main topic of contention yesterday? The referendum – something which Smith is trying eagerly to make his own cause and his reason for being. Earlier this week, he said he wanted to block Brexit – a strategy which perhaps wasn’t as fruitful as he hoped it would be. Last night, he was at it again: repeating that pledge and also going after Corbyn by questioning whether he actually did vote ‘Remain’ in the referendum. Their exchange went as follows:
Smith: I’m not even sure that Jeremy voted In. I’d like to hear you say it Jeremy because I’m not certain.
Corbyn: I thought we were grown up and we weren’t any longer going to use those kinds of questions and those kinds of remarks. Owen, you know very well what we were doing in the European referendum. We were speaking together on the same platform in Cardiff asking people to vote Remain.
Smith: I was at that meeting Jeremy and you made a very narrow speech, as you did in all of those rallies.
Corbyn: Owen, you know perfectly well what the answer is – I voted Remain and I’m very surprised and actually quite disappointed that you should raise that question.
It’s no surprise that Smith has decided to use Corbyn’s passive referendum campaign as a form of attack. After all, the referendum was the final straw for many Labour MPs who subsequently turned their backs on Corbyn, triggering this summer’s leadership contest in the first place.
Yet, once again, Smith’s strategy went down like a lead balloon. The problem with this line of attack is that even if Smith does have a point (others have certainly asked the question of how Corbyn voted), he has failed to think through what the best possible outcome of going after Corbyn in this way will be. Corbyn is never going to admit on stage that he voted for Brexit; and by suggesting as much, it’s easy for Corbyn to deflect the attack and make Smith look as though he’s the one playing politics. Consequently, Corbyn was able to turn Smith’s attack into a cheer for himself. And Smith ended up getting booed. As Michael Deacon points out in his Telegraph sketch, it’s quite something for Smith to have met with an angry response for opposing Brexit in Scotland, which voted to stay in the EU.
So, not for the first time, Smith tried and failed to score points against Corbyn. And with each leadership hustings that goes by, time is running out for him to find a way to topple the Labour leader from achieving what seems more and more likely to be an inevitable second win.