UK Politics

Hilary Benn: One Jeremy Corbyn challenger 'preferable'

Angela Eagle, Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith
Image caption Jeremy Corbyn (middle) is facing a leadership challenge from Angela Eagle and Owen Smith

It would be "preferable" for only one candidate to take on Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership, ex-shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn has said.

It is understood Angela Eagle and Owen Smith have agreed only one of them will challenge Mr Corbyn in the final round.

Mr Benn said the party should wait to see how many nominations - which close on Wednesday - each candidate gets.

Mr Benn, who is backing Ms Eagle, said it was time for a female leader. But he said Mr Smith would also be "great".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he "trusts" Labour Party members will make the "right decision", and not back Mr Corbyn.

The winner of the contest - sparked after Mr Corbyn lost a vote of no confidence from his MPs - will be announced at a special conference on 24 September.

Meanwhile, the Labour leader - who has vowed to fight any challengers in the contest - has taken out an advert in the Guardian newspaper defending his record and stating his desire to carry on in the role.

"I'd rather be fighting the Tories," the advert states.

Mr Benn told Today: "Yesterday Angela and Owen Smith met. They had very productive and useful discussions and we will wait and see what the nominations that Labour MPs make produces."

On the question of a "unity" candidate to take on Mr Corbyn, he said there was a "strong view" in the parliamentary party in favour of that.

"I think that would be preferable," he told Today but he said "we don't yet know what the outcome of the nominations will be".

An initial list of which MPs are backing which candidate is to be published on Tuesday evening.

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Image caption Hilary Benn (r) kickstarted the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership by saying he did not have confidence in his leadership

Mr Benn - who was sacked from the shadow cabinet after telling Mr Corbyn he did not have confidence in his leadership - said he was backing Ms Eagle because she had "great integrity", "a lot of experience". He also said he thought it was time for a woman to lead the party.

But he added: "I will give my full support to whoever is elected if someone other than Jeremy is chosen by the members in September."

The former foreign secretary - whose sacking was followed by mass resignations from the Labour top team - said Ms Eagle and Mr Smith would "both make great leaders" and added that Mr Corbyn "can't continue" as Labour leader.

"If we're not going to be a party that aspires to be in government then none of the ideas - whether they are ideas held and argued for by Jeremy, Angela or Owen - can come to pass because we'll have a Conservative government in this country."

But he insisted the party "is not going to split" despite the "very difficult and unhappy situation" it is in.

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Image caption Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said under his leadership Labour had reversed "punitive, right wing" Tory policies

In his newspaper advert, Mr Corbyn said that under his leadership Labour had "rolled the Tory government back" on "many punitive, right-wing proposals", such as tax credit cuts, disability benefits cuts and plans to relax Sunday trading laws.

"I want to continue to lead a party providing such effective opposition, especially now that Brexit puts at risk jobs and workers' rights," he added.

The Labour leadership challengers took part in a hustings in front of Labour MPs on Monday.

Registered supporters

Speaking afterwards, Ms Eagle said the debate had gone "very well".

One of her supporters told BBC political correspondent Iain Watson she had shown "more substance" while an MP backing Mr Smith said only he could unite the Labour Party.

As challengers, Mr Smith and Ms Eagle need nominations from 51 MPs and MEPs to get on the ballot paper while, as the incumbent leader, Mr Corbyn is automatically entitled to stand.

During his leadership launch on Sunday, Mr Smith said the contender with the most backing should become the unity candidate to take on Mr Corbyn - a view shared by senior colleagues.

Mr Corbyn has vowed to fight the challengers, but in the latest in a string of rows over the vote he has said he thinks rules which exclude recently signed-up Labour members from voting in the contest are "not very fair".

He said he wants the party's National Executive Committee to change the restrictions, adding that he believes the £25 fee for registered supporters to vote in the contest is too high.

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