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In Britain, 7 Parliament Members Quit Opposition Labour Party

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is now 39 days and counting until Britain is set to exit the European Union. There is still no deal for how Britain will do that and mounting questions as to whether it will leave at all. In a moment we'll hear about a letter signed by dozens of former diplomats urging that Brexit be delayed.

We begin, though, with news that seven members of Parliament quit the opposition Labour Party today. Here to explain what is going on is Anna Mikhailova. She is political correspondent for The Telegraph newspaper, and we have reached her in London. Anna, welcome.

ANNA MIKHAILOVA: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So some of these lawmakers who quit the Labour Party today had been in the party for decades. In a few sentences, lay out for us why they're quitting now.

MIKHAILOVA: Absolutely. They are quitting because they are frustrated with the Labour leadership. They want to branch out on their own, form a breakaway party. This is extremely significant. It is the first time we have had a Labour split since the 1980s.

KELLY: And to dig in just a little bit on the specific concerns that have led to this departure, No. 1, it's Brexit. They're not happy with how the Labour Party is handling Brexit or how Brexit is being handled at all. This is cause for a second referendum. Is that correct?

MIKHAILOVA: Yes. The thing that mostly unifies these MPs is they do - they opposed Brexit originally. And they mostly want a second vote. But it is much more than Brexit. There are significant concerns that all of these MPs, plus quite a few other moderate MPs, have about Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

KELLY: Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party.

MIKHAILOVA: Yes.

KELLY: So along with Brexit, these seven MPs are also raising concerns about anti-Semitism. What's going on with that?

MIKHAILOVA: Yes, this is part of a longstanding issue that's been tearing at the party, which is that there have been quite a few reports about anti-Semitic comments, abuse both online and off-line, from members of the Labour Party. Now, you know, bear in mind, a party is open to pretty much whoever wants to join it.

That is probably the explanation of why these incidents come about. I think most people are unanimous in saying that it is utterly unacceptable. But the big complaint against the Labour Party and its leadership is that it has been far too slow in handling the problem and expelling people who have made anti-Semitic comments.

KELLY: Well, let's go to the big-picture significance of this - and especially for an American audience listening along that may not know all of the intricacies of British politics and the political parties but is following what is going on with Brexit. You describe this as significant - why? I mean, do seven MPs have the power to alter the political math here?

MIKHAILOVA: They do, indeed. So because Theresa May is - has a very slight minority government, she herself is completely dependent on the DUP, which is the party she made an alliance with. And that is just 12 MPs, so you can see how...

KELLY: ...Slender the margins are, yes.

MIKHAILOVA: ...Those kind of numbers are actually extremely significant. There's no guarantee that this new Independent Group, as they're calling themselves, will support her deal. They actually want a second referendum mostly. But it does take the numbers slightly into her favor.

KELLY: Is there any guarantee that it will only be seven? Or might more join - join their ranks?

MIKHAILOVA: No, that's spot on. So it does look like a lot of other MPs, both Labour and Conservative, are looking, watching and waiting, to see what happens with this group. Will they actually form a party and whether or not they will make the jump and join them - because it's not just Labour MPs who are unhappy with the political system right now and want, you know, a so-called new way.

There are quite a few conservatives who are deeply unhappy with the government, with its stance. And, you know, we're looking at them as quite likely to join a splinter group as well.

KELLY: Anna Mikhailova, she is political correspondent for The Telegraph, speaking to us from London. Anna, thank you.

MIKHAILOVA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.