20/07/2016 09:12 BST

Owen Smith Denies Claims He Backs NHS Privatisation As Labour Leadership Battle Begins

Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith has been forced to deny accusations he has been in favour of privatising the NHS.

Before entering parliament, Smith worked as head of government affairs for US drug company Pfizer. The Times this morning quoted an ally of Jeremy Corbyn branding Smith the “Blair-lite candidate”.

The row centers on a press release sent by Smith on behalf of the firm in 2005 in which he said “choice is a good thing” in the NHS - a term taken to mean increased private sector involvement.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s today programme said it was “clearly not true” that he wanted Pfizer to take over some parts of the health service. “I have never advocated privatization of the NHS,” he said. “I believe 100% publicly owned NHS free at the point of use.”

He added it should be seen as a “massive advantage” that he had experience working in the private sector and suggested the Corbyn camp was worried about his candidacy. “I am coming under attack and I think its because people know I am connecting with Labour Party members,” he told Sky News.

Yesterday Smith emerged as the sole challenger to Corbyn for the leadership of the party after Angela Eagle stepped aside. Labour MPs, who recently overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn, hope having just one challenger will increase the chances of the current leader being toppled.

Smith this morning said he was just as “radical” as Corbyn when it came to policy - but was more capable of leading Labour into government. “We haven’t got the respect of British people,” he said.”they don’t trust us to run the country right now.”

Smith also revealed he had proposed to Corbyn, if he was ousted as leader, he become president or chairman of the party. “I think Jeremy has got a way of communicating that many of our members find very appealing, Jeremy has great labour values,” he said. “A lot of people love Jeremy, but they don’t think he is a leader and they don’t think he can win an election,” he said.