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Brexit: Labour's Jeremy Corbyn sacks Hilary Benn

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn fires Hilary Benn, shadow foreign secretary, for leading a coup, as another member resigns.

Hilary Benn

Labour Party under pressure
  • Corbyn, who backed Remain, facing pressure after Britain voted to leave EU
  • Shadow Foreign Minister Hilary Benn sacked for 'leading 'coup'
  • Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander resigns citing ineffective leadership
  • At least one third of Labour voters estimated to have backed Brexit

Britain's opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is facing a crisis within his Labour Party following the EU referendum, having sacked one shadow cabinet minister for attempting a coup, and as another member and an MP resigned, citing ineffective leadership.

In the early hours of Sunday, Corbyn sacked shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn as deep divisions emerged in the Labour Party following the UK's vote to leave the European Union.

Corbyn, facing pressure to step aside after Thursday's referendum, dismissed Benn after reports that he was preparing to lead a coup against the Labour leader.

Hours later, Heidi Alexander, the shadow health secretary, resigned. Soon after, Gloria de Piero, a Labour MP for Ashfield, also quit.

In a letter posted to Corbyn, published on her Twitter page, Alexander said: "As much as I respect you as a man of principle, I do not believe you have the capacity to shape the answers our country is demanding and I believe if we are to form the next Government, a change of leadership is essential."

Corbyn has been criticised by some Labour MPs who say he did not campaign hard enough in support of EU membership, and had failed to convince millions of voters in the party's heartlands to back "Remain".

Many fear that should another general election be held in the wake of the Brexit, or British exit, vote, Corbyn would fail to inspire voters towards the Labour Party - the main opposition to the ruling Conservative leadership.

"It is understood that Benn had called fellow MPs over the weekend to suggest that he would ask Corbyn to stand down if there was significant support for a move against him," The Observer newspaper said.

"He had also asked shadow cabinet colleagues to join him in resigning if Corbyn ignored that request."

In a statement, Benn said he was sacked after telling Corbyn in a phone call that he had lost confidence in his leadership.

"It has now become clear that there is widespread concern among Labour MPs and in the shadow cabinet about Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of our party. In particular, there is no confidence in our ability to win the next general election, which may come sooner than expected, if Jeremy continues as leader," Benn said.

"At this critical time for our country, following the result of the EU referendum, we need strong and effective leadership of the Labour Party that is capable of winning public support so that we can stand up for the people of Britain.

"In a phone call to Jeremy, I told him that for these reasons I had lost confidence in his ability to lead the party and he then dismissed me from the shadow cabinet."

Brexit effect

Benn, the son of former Labour politician Tony Benn, also publicly disagreed with Corbyn in September over air strikes on Syria. 

Soon after the 52 to 48 percent vote in favour of Brexit, which triggered the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, two Labour MPs - Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey - submitted a motion of no-confidence in Corbyn. Others have also called for his resignation.

But in his first speech since the vote, Corbyn on Saturday emphasised the large mandate given to him by party activists at a leadership contest last year, in which he swept to victory on a wave of support for his left-wing political agenda.

Asked whether he would stand for re-election in any leadership contest, he said: "Yes, I'm here.

"There are some people in the Labour Party ... who would want probably somebody else to be the leader of the Labour Party, they've made that abundantly clear," Corbyn added.

"What I'm totally amazed by is that in the past 24 hours 140,000 people have said they do not want the Labour Party to spend the next two months debating the leadership," he said, citing an online petition calling for him to continue leading the party.

'Immigration debate needed'

Around one third of Labour voters are estimated to have backed a British exit from the EU on Thursday, with many of those coming from traditional working class areas where high immigration tops the list of public concerns.

Responding to criticism from Labour colleagues that he had failed to address those concerns, Corbyn said there needed to be a national dialogue on immigration to reach a new settlement.

READ MORE: After Brexit, what happens next?

"We can't duck the issue of immigration, clearly it was a factor," he said. "We need to start an open and honest debate."

Corbyn said the vote showed a backlash against the EU principle of free movement. But he added that if Britain wanted to retain access to the European single market - one of many issues cast into doubt by the vote - he believed it would have to accept free movement as a condition of that deal.

"If we were part of the single market in future, then clearly that would be accompanied by the continuing free movement of people," he said.

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