Former Tory minister defects to Labour over NHS crisis in fresh blow for Sunak

Dr Dan Poulter, the MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, says he could no longer look his NHS colleagues in the eye and remain a Tory

Tom Watling
Saturday 27 April 2024 17:26 BST
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Former Conservative minister and MP Dan Poulter quits party to join Labour

A top Tory MP has defected to the Labour Party after claiming the Conservatives have become a “nationalist party of the right”.

Dr Dan Poulter, the MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, who also works part-time as a mental health doctor in the NHS, said he would not stand at the next election but would join Labour until the vote, required to be before January 2025.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer welcomed Dr Poulter to the party, describing his defection as a “fantastic” boost to their attempts to unseat the Conservatives.

“It’s fantastic to welcome Dr Dan Poulter MP to today’s changed Labour Party,” Sir Keir wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “It’s time to end the Conservative chaos, turn the page, and get Britain’s future back. I’m really pleased that Dan has decided to join us on this journey.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said that Dr Poulter’s defection would be “disappointing” for his constituents.

In an interview with the BBC, Dr Poulter said he could no longer look his NHS colleagues in the eye and remain a Conservative as the party was not focused on public services.

“The difficulty for the Conservative Party is that the party I was elected into valued public services,” he said. “It had a compassionate view about supporting the more disadvantaged in society.

“I think the Conservative Party today is a very different place.”

He said his experiences over more than 20 night shifts over the last year in an overstretched A&E department had been “truly life changing”, adding that those experiences had persuaded him to defect.

NHS A&E departments are suffering huge waiting times, according to the latest NHS data
NHS A&E departments are suffering huge waiting times, according to the latest NHS data (PA)

According to the latest NHS data, more than a quarter of all admissions to A&E in March 2024 had to wait more than four hours before being admitted, transferred or discharged, despite the target of 95 per cent of patients waiting less than four hours.

Dr Poulter said he believes Labour is the only party committed to investing in improving the NHS.

While he will not stand as a Labour MP for the upcoming general election, he says he hopes to assume a role advising the party on its policies on mental health while focusing more on his NHS work.

The One Nation Tory, from the left of the party, becomes the first Conservative MP to defect to the Labour Party since Christian Wakeford crossed the floor in 2022.

High-level discussions between Dr Poulter and senior Labour figures have been ongoing for months, according to The Observer, regarding the timings and organisation of his defection, as well as what advisory roles he could take on.

It is understood that Dr Poulter had been frustrated by the lack of interest of consecutive prime ministers in his views on NHS reform since David Cameron’s premiership, during which there was a strong interest in the NHS.

Dr Poulter was first elected to parliament in 2010 and served as a health minister under now-Lord Cameron from 2012 to 2015.

It is another blow to Rishi Sunak ahead of next week’s council and mayoral elections, in which the Conservatives are predicted to lose up to half of their remaining local authority seats.

Heavy losses at these elections could leave Mr Sunak at risk of a possible pre-election leadership challenge.

It has been reported that a group of Conservative MPs have crafted a “100 days to save Britain” plot to replace Mr Sunak with Penny Mordaunt, the current Leader of the Commons, in a desperate last ditch attempt to reverse the party’s fortunes ahead of the upcoming general election.

One Tory rebel told The Telegraph that they are “facing an extinction-level event”, while one veteran ToryMP described the situation facing the Conservatives as akin to “looking down the barrel of a gun”.

“It’s for colleagues to decide if they want to go down with the sinking ship,” the rebel added.

The 100 days strategy, reportedly backed by senior figures from both the moderate and right of the party, would focus on “quick wins” and manifesto promises. A general election would then be held following a wave of policy announcements.

Dr Poulter said he acknowledged the difficulty of the job facing Mr Sunak and that he had no personal vendetta against him.

Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt faced questions from opposition MPs on rumours of a potential change of Tory leadership (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt faced questions from opposition MPs on rumours of a potential change of Tory leadership (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

But he praised Sir Keir for reforming the Labour Party since taking over from Jeremy Corbyn after the last general election loss to the Tories.

Dr Poulter said the Labour Party had a clear focus on public service, lauding its commitment to preventative care, child health and the social causes of poor health.

“One of the things I really like about Labour Party policy on the NHS is the focus on the social determinants of poor health and actually recognising that tackling poverty, poor housing, all those issues, particularly giving children from poorer backgrounds better chances and focusing on child health,” he told The Observer.

“That is something Labour understands that the Conservatives really don’t – and that, for me, is something that makes the Labour Party the party that can be trusted with delivering the reforms that are needed to get the NHS back on its feet.”

Ellie Reeves MP, Labour’s deputy national campaign coordinator, said she was “absolutely delighted” to welcome Dr Poulter to the Labour Party.

She was pictured with Dr Poulter on Saturday morning as he signed his Labour membership form.

“This morning I was absolutely delighted to welcome Dr Dan Poulter to Labour,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Dan knows that a Labour government led by ⁦Keir Starmer⁩ will focus on preventative care, child health and the social causes of poor health.”

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