Smith honed his attack but Corbyn was philosophical as summer saga nears its end

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“Let’s take the fight to the Tories”. Thank goodness – they both said it, right at the start.

With the end of the leadership contest now in sight, Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn tonight turned their mind to the aftermath of this long summer. Labour members and MPs certainly have, judging by the talk in Westminster this week, when the restoration of shadow cabinet elections moved one step closer.

But Corbyn and Smith are still mired in battle. And tonight it was heavyweight. The latest hustings didn’t produce a clear winner but it was clear that the Question Time studio audience was left happier by the passionate appeals of the Labour leader then the pragmatic pitches of the challenger.

They started with the end of this contest. Corbyn, who has sometimes sounded philosophical about whether critical MPs will return to the frontbench, struck a more bullish tone over the prospect of achieving unity among the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). “After this leadership election there has to be a coming-together,” he insisted.

Is he right? Don’t bet on it happening. But Corbyn didn’t sound very worried about the future. Smith clearly was, repeating his now familiar gloomy warning over the performance of the official Opposition: “The Tories are running amok in this country… We are all guilty of letting down – not [just] our party – but the people we seek to serve.”

It can, of course, hardly be doubted that the PLP has been distracted from the essential work of holding to account Theresa May’s government. And tonight showcased many of the causes of those troubles, with Labour’s unity, poor polling and approach to Brexit all playing a major part.

On these subjects, there was less new to be heard. The Question Time special from Oldham might have been the first hustings to be screened live on the BBC but for the candidates, and no doubt many of the members, it was familiar stuff.

What emerged was Smith’s slight shift in tactics over the summer, as well as Corbyn’s largely unflappable stance in the face of the changing criticisms of his leadership. Smith began the contest months ago with a mass of left-wing policy detail and pledges to invest billions in Britain. He ends it with a more direct attack on the man he wishes to unseat, warning of more Labour failure and greater Tory supremacy if Corbyn is re-elected.

“How can we go through two Prime Minister’s Questions and not mention Brexit?” Smith asked.

” It is the biggest issue right now…. and indicates our leader is not holding Theresa May to account.”

Corbyn looked untroubled. That may be because of his enduring status as the front-runner, or simply his personality, but he is sticking to the style which brought him a landslide victory just a year ago.

For one audience member, neither man was convincing. The questioner called for both Corbyn and Smith to stand aside in favour of Harriet Harman, perhaps because of her experience in ministerial and senior Labour roles.

The audience didn’t like that suggestion one bit, however, and a few boos could be heard.

It was not the only occasion. Smith was jeered when he repeated his demand for the British people to be given a second chance to vote on Brexit – through a referendum or a general election – once the terms of the deal have been agreed. He should. perhaps, have seen that one coming, given the strong victory for the Out campaign in Oldham on June 23.

Corbyn, however, also had to face strong criticism. One of his answers prompted host David Dimbleby to ask “Isn’t that pie in the sky?” while the Labour leader was also challenged over his handling of instances of anti-Semitism in the party.

He argued, with some justification, that he has “spent my life opposing racism in every form” but the fact the question is still being asked, more than 15 months since he began his first run for the leadership, indicates he has some way to go to reassure the Jewish community, and all fair-minded voters, that he can effectively tackle prejudice.

The evening progressed much as it had begun. Smith’s line of attack has long been honed – claiming Corbyn is “satisfied to lead us in Opposition” but not in government – while the incumbent could point to the recent swelling of the Labour membership as well as his vision of a more peaceful world.

Corbyn was characteristically colourful in use of language. His answers are rarely short and his neologisms have become almost a trademark – there has been a “re-energisation of politics over the last year” while he wants to see a “de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsular” – but he seemed to carry more of the audience with him.

Will that be the end of the drama? Of course not – there will be a few more twists in this summer saga. But both men have refined their argument over the course of the contest. Smith has become sharper about his former boss while Corbyn has learnt how to shrug off some of the difficult questions that come with incumbency in any office.

Smith and Corbyn took the fight to each other tonight but the Labour leader looks increasingly confident. If he wins on September 24, as many now expect, then let’s hope he takes the fight to the Tories with vigour. There is too much damage being done to Britain to go through this every summer.

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