The inside story of Tory MP’s defection to Labour – BBC News

The inside story of Tory MP’s defection to Labour – BBC News
  • By Henry Zeffman
  • Chief political correspondent

Image source, Getty Images

Before Tory MP Christian Wakeford swapped sides to Labour at the peak of the Partygate scandal in 2022, it had been 27 years since an MP had defected directly from the governing party to the main party of opposition.

Less than two weeks ago, Dan Poulter made the same journey as Mr Wakeford.

And today – to bafflement and shock from MPs of all parties – Natalie Elphicke sits as a Labour MP.

Indeed, it took a while for MPs to work out what Sir Keir Starmer was talking about at Prime Minister’s Questions when he welcomed Mrs Elphicke to his side; few had noticed her sit down behind the Labour leader.

She walked in accompanied by John Healey, the shadow defence secretary – who is understood to have been instrumental to wooing her across, due to a working relationship they forged due to a shared interest in housing.

Mrs Elphicke worked in the housing sector before she became an MP in 2019, while Mr Healey was the housing minister in Gordon Brown’s government and shadowed the brief for Labour from 2015 to 2020.

Sir Keir and his team are jubilant. They believe there could be few clearer messages for voters motivated by the small boats issue than the MP for Dover – where many of the crossings arrive – declaring that she trusts the Labour leader over Rishi Sunak on the issue.

Remember this is one of the prime minister’s five priorities: an issue at the heart of his attempts to reverse his political predicament.

Video caption, Watch: Natalie Elphicke takes seat on Labour benches

More broadly, Sir Keir’s allies believe that the defection will help him make a direct argument to ‘big C’ Conservatives that if an MP as ‘small c’ conservative as Mrs Elphicke is moving to Labour, so they should too.

On the flipside, that is exactly what is worrying some Labour MPs, who worry that a broad church that can include Mrs Elphicke is simply too broad.

Multiple sources claimed that party whips, who are responsible for enforcing discipline, expressed concerns about admitting Mrs Elphicke to the party, though Labour denied this.

It is worth remembering, too, that some Labour MPs are still angry that Diane Abbott, first elected as a Labour MP in 1983, has not had the Labour whip restored since April last year, when she was suspended over allegations of antisemitism.

Rent freeze call

The two previous Conservative defectors were widely welcomed by Labour MPs: Mr Wakeford was disillusioned with Boris Johnson at a moment when his character was at the heart of the political debate; Labour MPs liked that Mr Poulter defected specifically on the issue of the NHS.

Mrs Elphicke’s cause of immigration and asylum policy sits less easily with many Labour MPs – though it is worth noting that she also cited housing, where her views are much more in tune with the Labour mainstream.

It hasn’t helped settle some Labour MPs’ nerves that so many Conservative MPs have been noisily declaring that they are much less right-wing than Mrs Elphicke.

The truth about Ms Elphicke’s position on the ideological spectrum is perhaps a little more nuanced.

She was staunchly pro-Brexit, and a member of the Eurosceptic European Research Group of Conservative MPs.

Yet while she has repeatedly castigated Labour over its approach to small boats, she has long argued that diplomacy with France will be more effective than the government’s Rwanda scheme – putting her fairly close to Labour, which opposes the policy.

Rumblings of dissatisfaction

In 2022, she proposed that all private rents be frozen to help renters with the cost of living, and the next year was part of a cross-party project to build houses for homeless people.

In February she praised Nye Bevan, one of the heroes of the post-war Labour government, in the House of Commons.

Some of the anxieties among Labour MPs are not just about Mrs Elphicke’s beliefs, but about her messy arrival in politics.

She has only been an MP since 2019, replacing her then-husband, Charlie Elphicke, after he was charged with sexual assault. He was later convicted and imprisoned, at which point she announced that their marriage was ending.

Despite the private rumblings of dissatisfaction from some quarters of the Labour Party, it is noteworthy that few have so far gone public to express their concerns.

That is a sign of a disciplined Labour Party, with even some of the MPs most sceptical about Sir Keir’s leadership determined not to make victory at the general election harder by sounding off.

But that does not mean they will forget this episode.

One Labour figure warned that Sir Keir was “storing up bad will” for the government that most people – including Natalie Elphicke – now assume he will lead.

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