Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been plunged into crisis as a string of shadow ministers quit Labour’s top team saying they had no confidence his ability to win a general election.
The party’s influential deputy leader Tom Watson said he is to hold emergency talks with Mr Corbyn on Monday to “discuss the way forward” after nine members of the shadow cabinet announced they were resigning – with more expected to follow.
In a statement, Mr Watson said he was “saddened” so many colleagues felt unable to carry on and “deeply disappointed” at the sacking overnight of shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn which triggered the walkout.
He said: “My single focus is to hold the Labour Party together in very turbulent times. The nation needs an effective opposition, particularly as the current leadership of the country is so lamentable.
“It’s very clear to me that we are heading for an early general election and the Labour Party must be ready to form a government. There’s much work to do. I will be meeting Jeremy Corbyn tomorrow morning to discuss the way forward.”
As Mr Watson returned from the Glastonbury Festival to deal with the crisis, allies of the Labour leader insisted he had no intention of quitting – angrily accusing the rebels of plotting for months to get rid of him.
A series of senior trade unionists on Labour’s ruling national executive committee rallied in support of Mr Corbyn – including Unite leader Len McCluskey and Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union.
There was also support from shadow home secretary Andy Burnham who said he had no intention of taking part in a coup against the Labour leader
However the rebels warned Mr Corbyn would be unable to form a new shadow team – with Labour MPs unwilling to serve under his leadership – if he tries to struggle on.
The revolt of the shadow cabinet was sparked by the dismissal of Mr Benn in the early hours of the morning following reports that he was orchestrating moves to mount a coup against Mr Corbyn.
First to go was shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander followed by the shadow minister Gloria De Piero.
They were followed at intervals through the day by shadow education secretary Lucy Powell, shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy, shadow transport secretary Lilian Greenwood, shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker, shadow justice secretary Lord Falconer and shadow Treasury chief secretary Seema Malhotra.
My letter to Jeremy Corbyn setting out some of the challenges facing us following Thursday's vote. pic.twitter.com/EBbSnOlbaF
— Kerry McCarthy (@KerryMP) June 26, 2016
It is thought that shadow Commons leader Chris Bryant and shadow housing minister John Healey were also ready to quit.
In her resignation letter, Ms Powell said the party was facing an “existential threat” and she had no confidence in Mr Corbyn’s ability to lead them to victory if the Tories were to call a snap general election later this year in the wake of the Leave vote in the referendum.
“The task in front of us is immense. We have, over many years, lost the support of our traditional communities,” she wrote.
“While I don’t blame you personally for that, I do not believe you understand their concerns sufficiently to re-engage with these communities.”
I've just spoken to Jeremy Corbyn to tell him that with regret I'm resigning from the Shadow Cabinet. pic.twitter.com/deLbWYaczd
— Lucy Powell MP (@LucyMPowell) June 26, 2016
Mr Benn told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “He (Mr Corbyn) is a good and decent man but he is not a leader and that is the problem.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell – one of Mr Corbyn’s closest allies – insisted that he had no intention of quitting.
In a thinly veiled warning to rebels, he said that Mr Corbyn still had the backing of the grassroots activists who swept him to the leadership last year and who will decide the outcome of any new contest.
“When people go back to their constituencies, the message will be straightforward – be loyal to the principles of the Labour Party,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics.
“Support the leader we elected nine months ago. Full stop. Accept the mandate.”
However Mr Corbyn now faces a vote of no confidence which will be discussed at the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party at Westminster on Monday with a secret ballot of MPs expected the following day.
Although the vote has no formal status, rebels hope that a defeat for Mr Corbyn will make his position untenable.
In a letter to Labour MPs, veteran backbencher Dame Margaret Hodge who tabled the no confidence motion warned they were facing a disaster at the polls if they failed to act.
“If a general election is called later this year, which is a very real prospect, we believe that under Jeremy’s leadership we could be looking at political oblivion,” she wrote.
Mr Murray told the BBC: “I think Jeremy Corbyn has to look at himself seriously in the mirror and see if he sees himself walking down Downing Street as being prime minister, whether or not there’s a general election in six months, or in May 2020.
“I think he’s going to find it very difficult to answer yes to those questions – regrettably. He’s a decent human being, a lovely man who I got on incredibly well with, but he just can’t lead the Labour Party and I don’t think the public think he could be prime minister.”