Sketch: Owen Smith's weird attempts to seem normal
As the Labour leadership contest rumbled on, things have become weirder and weirder
The first few hours of a coup are critical. Usually, as a general rule, if it takes longer than a couple of months, you are probably not very good at coups. This has certainly been the case with Labour’s year-long uprising. It’s been like watching a team of sloths push over a tree.
So it was a relief when a man called Owen Smith finally emerged to offer a concrete challenge and save the party.
The MP for Pontypridd has painted himself as the unity candidate capable of stopping Corbyn, and reuniting the Labour Party. After all, as Smith himself warned the Huffington Post, there is not just a “risk” but “every likelihood” that the party would break up if Corbyn is re-elected.
This made sense: Smith is challenging Corbyn, and potentially splitting the party, in an effort to stop the party splitting. Though as a prediction it would admittedly be far more impressive if Smith wasn’t actually causing it. And although it is certainly possible the party is unelectable, it is just not clear how breaking it in half will help.
But Smith has a tricky job, given Corbyn’s grassroots popularity, and so for most of the campaign he has cast himself as a fresh, left-wing force. He’s even running on the platform ‘Labour’s Future’ – which is a demonstrably different slogan to ‘New Labour’. New Labour is Old now, as far as Smith is concerned, and he is the Future, which is New.
And things haven’t been easy for him, not least because of the stuff he’s come out with. Just this week he was facing difficult questions from Radio Four’s John Humphrys, after being accused of referring to Corbyn as “a lunatic” during a recent rally.
These are the moments that can make or break a campaign, and Smith was quick to counter, boldly telling Humphrys, “I didn’t say that. I was referring to myself.”
Humphrys read out what Smith had said. “What you won’t get from me is some, you know, lunatic at the top of the Labour Party.” Humphrys pointed out that Corbyn is at the top of the Labour Party, and that made it sound like he was calling Corbyn a lunatic.
But Smith wasn’t having that. “I was saying that I wasn’t a lunatic,” he said, adding: “I wasn’t talking about Jeremy, John, I was talking about me.”
Some would question why Smith kept referring to himself as a lunatic, or indeed, why he kept saying the word lunatic over and over and over again on national radio, to an audience of millions. In fact, Humphrys tried to move on, but Smith wasn’t having it.
Apologising “to anyone who might have been offended”, he added, once again, “I wasn’t calling Jeremy a lunatic. As I said, it was a reference to me”.
Good stuff. But still, it didn’t look great. And so, with hindsight, you can see why he was so pleased when a Sky News presenter told him he seemed “normal”.
In fact, he was delighted. “I’m glad you think I’m normal. I am normal. I grew up in a normal household. I’ve got a wife and three children. My wife is a primary school teacher.”
This may be true – maybe Smith is a normal man, even if he looks much more like a potato than any normal man. And of course people don’t normally spend so much time talking about how normal they are, because it makes you sound like a serial killer.
But still, Smith has received backing from most of the party’s big names. Well, apart from former candidate Andy Burnham, who has remained typically neutral. And of course it is Andy Burnham we should really feel sorry for – a man who, for reasons that are still unclear, is condemned to live through all of Labour’s failings without being able to influence or even comment on them. He’s like a ghost, doomed to exist among the living.
And so it was fortunate Tom Watson was on hand to attempt to bolster Corbyn’s position, with the Labour deputy telling the Guardian: “You know, at any point in time, I want to put my arms around him and hug him and say, ‘it’s going to be all right’, but also sort of shout and say, ‘we need to talk about this’.”
To be honest it was hard to know what to make of that. With his attempts to hug someone and shout at them at the same time, Watson certainly seems to have some confused ideas about what it takes to offer support.
At least Kezia Dugdale picked a side, with the Scottish Labour leader weighing in for Smith last week.
Speaking to Radio Four, which is where most of the campaign seems to have been conducted, she denied Labour’s catastrophic failure in Scotland undermined her ability to hand out advice, asserting, “I actually think because we came third in Scotland that is the reason people should listen to me.”
Great. Imagine how useful Dugdale’s advice would be if she had come fourth.
But while voters seemed confused, the situation was actually very simple. Smith is challenging Corbyn to create unity, Watson was undermining Corbyn and implicitly backing Smith to stop division, and Corbyn’s camp was attacking both of them while demanding everyone came together.
Smith may be normal – whatever that is – but this contest is not.
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