Benn said he had been dismissed from the shadow cabinet in a late-night phone call after telling Corbyn he had “lost confidence in his ability to lead the party”.
He added: “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 election, which may come much sooner than expected, if Jeremy continues as leader.”
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. He had also asked shadow cabinet colleagues to join him in resigning if Corbyn ignored that request.
Corbyn informed Benn, the son of his former mentor, Tony Benn, at 1am on Sunday that he was sacking him because he had lost the Labour leader’s trust, a spokesman for the party leader said.
It is understood that an overwhelming majority of members of the shadow cabinet believe that Corbyn should quit, in the wake of millions of Labour voters ignoring their leader’s advice to vote in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the EU, and amid the possibility of an early general election.
Benn made it clear in his statement that the Brexit vote had prompted his move, saying: “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.”
Leaked internal Labour party polling of people who voted for Labour in 2015 reveals that nearly a third (29%) would support a different party if a general election was held today.
It shows that just 71% of those who voted for Ed Miliband’s party in May last year say they would vote Labour now, and this drops further – to 67% – among working and lower middle-class C2DE voters.
A Labour source said: “MPs and members were worried about their prospects at the next election under Corbyn, but thought they had four years to turn things around. Now many fear they may have just four months if a snap election is called, so know they must act now to change the leader.”
Corbyn, speaking earlier on Saturday at a speech in London, had acknowledged rumblings of discontent about his leadership. “Yes, there are some people in the Labour party, and the parliamentary Labour party in particular, who probably want someone else to be the leader – I think they’ve made that abundantly clear,” he said.
Miliband, speaking at the Glastonbury festival on Saturday, offered some support, saying Corbyn was not to blame for the failure of the remain campaign. “I don’t think we should blame Jeremy Corbyn for the seismic earthquake. Part of the problem is that Westminster has been talking to itself too much,” he said.
Sources close to the leadership indicated that Benn had been a marked man even before the Observer revelations. The MP for Leeds Central electrified his party, and dismayed Corbyn, when he made a passionate speech in favour of British military involvement in Syria in December.
Rumours that Benn would be ousted in a future Labour reshuffle had circulated in Westminster for weeks. However, the development will be a major jolt to the shadow cabinet.
It is yet to be seen whether it will only strengthen the resolve of some to launch a unified assault on Corbyn’s leadership or quieten down the rebels. One shadow secretary of state suggested that only a small minority in the shadow cabinet now felt any loyalty to the Labour leader.
Despite the late hour of the sacking, some Labour MPs were quick to express their concern over the move. Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter, tweeted: “The Labour shadow cabinet must act now to save the party and for the sake of the country. Otherwise we will never be forgiven.”
Ilford North MP Wes Streeting tweeted: “Lots of good people chose to serve in shadow cabinet to keep the show on the road. There are no longer good reasons for good people to stay.”
The shadow minister for housing, Roberta Blackman-Woods, called the sacking “sad news indeed”, adding: “I cannot understand how Jeremy thinks it will help his worsening position with the PLP [parliamentary Labour party].”
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael noted that the row would distract from the Conservative party’s own internal strife, tweeting: “Thank God Corbyn has sacked Benn. Just when media attention was going to focus on Tory splits.”
Before news of the sacking broke, both the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph had led on news of Tory infighting over who will succeed David Cameron, who has said he will stand down as prime minister and party leader by October.
Conservative MPs who had backed staying in the European Union are seeking to find a candidate who can “stop Boris” – with the former mayor of London and Vote Leave frontman Boris Johnson currently considered the strongest candidate to succeed Cameron.
Nicky Morgan, the education secretary and a possible contender for the leadership, writes today in the Sunday Times that the priority for the next prime minister will be “the task of reuniting our divided kingdom”, and urges party members to resist the temptation “to retreat to our ideological comfort zone and to appease the noisy fringes at the expense of the broad centre”.
A vote on a motion of no confidence in Corbyn is likely to be held by the parliamentary Labour party on Tuesday. Backbench MPs have been using WhatsApp to garner support for the motion, and it is believed that up to 80% of the parliamentary party are now set to vote in favour of Corbyn standing down.
However, it is understood that the chief whip, Rosie Winterton, is seeking to delay the vote for a week. Critics fear she is allowing support to gather for the candidature of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, a Corbyn ally, in case the Labour leader does quit and a leadership contest is launched. Winterton’s allies deny the claim.
In the Observer, Tristram Hunt, the former shadow education secretary, joins Corbyn’s critics, arguing: “Our experiment with Corbynism has to end. If Labour members care about Labour voters, we need to do something about the Labour leader.”
Writing before Benn’s sacking, Hunt wrote: “The shadow cabinet needs to act or MPs will.”
Fellow Labour MP Stephen Kinnock also wrote in favour of ousting Corbyn, saying he would back the motion of no confidence in the party leader. “There is no doubt that Jeremy is a great campaigner, but this is not a time for campaigners. This is a time for hard-headed negotiators. And it is also a time for people who have more than a passing knowledge of, and interest in, the EU,” Kinnock wrote.
“We need people at the table who will be able to see and understand the positions of the other member states, and of the EU institutions. We need a team in place that will secure the best possible deal for the British people.”
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