Labour MPs are united in calling for a unity candidate to take on Jeremy Corbyn in the party's leadership election. The only problem is they can't agree which unity candidate this should be.
Yvette Cooper asked the candidates in party's parliamentary leadership hustings on Wednesday whether they would back the idea of a single candidate going up against Corbyn, based on who receives the most nominations for MPs.
One pro-Eagle Labour MP told BuzzFeed News that the parliamentary Labour party was now in the middle of a complicated political process in which the party's MPs attempt to accurately work out who actually has more support from MPs before the ballot is conducted.
"Private tallies will be important," said one Labour MP who warned against reading too much into the interim update on each candidate's parliamentary support.
Instead, a complicated system involving an indicative informal ballot of MPs – conducted as early as Tuesday morning and possibly with Cooper's backing – could be used to ascertain which of Eagle and Smith has genuine levels of support. The other candidate would then be encouraged to stand aside by party grandees, while other MPs would then flood the unity candidate with formal nominations.
This is an attempt to avoid challengers Owen Smith and Angela Eagle splitting the anti-Corbyn vote when the vote is put to ordinary members this summer.
Smith said he supported the idea, while Eagle was less committed to it, according to MPs in the room.
Members of the parliamentary Labour party – which includes MEPs – can now formally nominate a candidate to appear on the ballot. An interim list of MPs who back each candidate will then be published at 5pm on Tuesday, with the final result due on Wednesday evening.
Two MPs from opposing sides separately said the rival anti-Corbyn candidates are aiming to finish with a narrow lead in Tuesday night's public pledges of support. Both want to claim they have momentum without actually showing the full extent of their backing.
The leadership election will formally begin on Wednesday night when the party confirms eligible candidates. Corbyn, who has lost the support of almost the entire parliamentary Labour party, will automatically be on the ballot.
One MP also confirmed that meetings have taken place between the two candidates and their teams since the start of the leadership contest, although there is no indication either is prepared to back down.
It is still hard to judge who has the lead in the contest and whether Eagle would be willing to pull out of the ballot for Smith or risk there being three candidates on the vote for party members.
"Is this a negotiating strategy or does she have no intention of pulling out?" pondered one Smith-backing MP who wants Eagle to quit. "She risks not getting the 51 nominations."
One Eagle-supporting Labour MP said Eagle wasn't that far behind Smith in terms of parliamentary support and she had shown "a better idea of the cancer of the hard left" entering the Labour party during the hustings.
They added: "There was a lot of 'I agree with Angela'."
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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