Ex-Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson joins right-wing populist party Reform UK

The MP, who will stand for the party at the general election, accused Rishi Sunak’s party of stifling ‘free speech’ after he lost the Conservative whip in a row over Islamophobia

Archie Mitchell
Monday 11 March 2024 19:09 GMT
Sadiq Khan responds to Lee Anderson's remarks

Lee Anderson has joined Nigel Farage’s Reform UK with a furious attack on the Conservative Party after he was suspended by the Tories for making Islamophobic remarks about London mayor Sadiq Khan.

The former Tory deputy chair said he had done “a lot of soul-searching” but had decided to join Reform in a bid to take “my country back” – a move that makes him the right-wing populist party’s first ever MP.

Mr Anderson, who represents Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, confirmed the news as he accused the Conservative Party of stifling “free speech”, adding that he found it “unpalatable” that he had been disciplined for “speaking my mind”.

The defection was announced during a chaotic event in Westminster by Reform leader Richard Tice, in what was billed as a “major” moment for the party.

Mr Tice, who said he expected “more [defections] to follow”, welcomed Mr Anderson as a “champion” of the red wall who is “trusted by voters to tell it as it is”.

As recently as January, Mr Anderson branded Mr Tice a “pound-shop Nigel Farage” and said Reform was “not a proper political party”. Asked what had changed, the MP, who is also a presenter on GB News, said: “There’s not been a turning point. We all know that sometimes politicians are about as trustworthy as journalists in what they say and do.”

Lee Anderson has joined Nigel Farage’s Reform UK in a blow for the Conservatives (PA Wire)

In a speech, Mr Anderson said his parents, who live in his constituency, had told him they could not vote for him at this year’s election if he did not defect to Reform.

He said: “All I want is my country back. Now this may sound offensive to the liberal elite. But it’s not offensive to my friends or family, my constituents – and some of my constituents, like my mum and dad, who told me they could not vote for me unless I joined Reform UK.”

“My parents are both nearly 80, and they get it, and I must not let them down,” he added. “But it’s been a gradual journey, and I think there’s been several tipping points over the past few months. And when I find myself suspended for speaking my mind – and, by the way, speaking up on behalf of millions of people up and down the country who agree with me – that, for me, is unpalatable. It’s a shocker, if I’m honest.”

Mr Anderson will now sit as an MP for Reform – which was formerly known as the Brexit Party and was set up by Mr Farage when he left Ukip – and will stand for the party at the next election.

Projections based on current polling show Mr Anderson is on course to lose the seat to Labour’s candidate Rhea Keehn by a significant margin. But asked if he would remain an MP after the election, Mr Anderson replied: “My mailbag tells me I’m going to win.”

His defection will pile fresh pressure on Rishi Sunak, with the Tories at risk of losing tens of seats at the next election if the insurgent populist party splits the right-wing vote.

Rishi Sunak faces a mounting headache as Reform UK continues to gain on the Tories in the polls (PA Wire)

Mr Anderson is also hugely popular with the Tory grassroots and was given a standing ovation at a Conservative fundraiser even after his suspension.

He was suspended by the Conservative Party last month after claiming that “Islamists” had “got control” of Mr Khan and of London. Mr Sunak and a series of ministers repeatedly refused to say his comments were racist, but suspended him when he refused to apologise for his remarks.

In an appearance on GB News, Mr Anderson had said: “I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan and they’ve got control of London... He’s actually given our capital city away to his mates.”

Sir Keir Starmer said it was right that Mr Anderson had been suspended from the party over his “appalling racist and Islamophobic outburst”.

Speculation that Mr Anderson was set to join Reform mounted immediately after his suspension. A meeting between Mr Anderson and Mr Tice at a hotel off the M1 only fuelled expectations that he would defect to the party. He has previously claimed to have been offered “a lot of money” to join the party set up by Mr Farage.

Reform is currently polling at around 12 per cent, while the Conservatives are on 24 per cent. Pollsters have repeatedly warned that Reform could deprive the Tories of tens of seats by splitting the vote, even if the party itself fails to send any MPs to Westminster.

Anderson, right, with Sunak, lost the Tory whip last month after claiming ‘Islamists’ had ‘got control’ of London mayor Sadiq Khan (PA Wire)

Two February by-elections saw Reform score double-digit shares of the vote in what Mr Tice called a “defining moment”, as he claimed that the party had become a “significant force now in British politics”.

Mr Tice and Mr Anderson ruled out holding a by-election after the defection, saying there would be a general election “within weeks or months”. But in 2020, Mr Anderson backed a bill that would have seen a recall petition sparked for any MP who voluntarily changed parties.

Sir Keir said on Monday that “in the end, it’s a matter for him” whether Mr Anderson calls a by-election. And he said voters across the country are fed up, as he suggested that Mr Sunak should call a general election instead.

The Labour leader told Sky News: “This is not just about Lee Anderson. It’s about 14 years of failure. I do think there’s a profound sense now, that so many people say we just need change, we need to move on from this.

“The Tories have failed. They can see the Labour Party has changed and that we’ve got a plan to change the country, and I think there’s a lot of people that [would] say ‘Forget about Lee Anderson, let’s have a general election.’”

The Labour Party’s national campaign coordinator Pat McFadden said Mr Sunak is “too weak” to lead the “extreme” Conservatives. He added: “What does it say about Rishi Sunak’s judgement that he promoted Lee Anderson in the first place?”

Reform founder Mr Farage said: “Lee Anderson moving to Reform is huge. I don’t think Westminster really understands this yet.” There is speculation that Mr Farage could return to take up a formal role with Reform ahead of the general election, which would only add to the Conservatives’ woes.

Home secretary James Cleverly, meanwhile, said his former Tory colleague had made a “real mistake”.

Reform UK leader Richard Tice announced the defection at a press conference (PA Wire)

“Reform is not the answer,” said Mr Cleverly. “As he has said, in his own words, Reform is not the answer, and a vote for Reform will only let in a Labour government.”

The New Conservatives group of around 25 right-wing Tory MPs reacted furiously to Mr Anderson’s defection, but said that the “responsibility sits with the Conservative Party”.

“We have failed to hold together the coalition of voters who gave us an 80-seat majority in 2019,” co-founders Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger said in a statement.

The pressure group said the Tories “cannot pretend any longer that ‘the plan is working’ ... our poll numbers show what the public think of our record since 2019”, adding: “We need to change course urgently.”

But senior Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said Mr Anderson was engaging in “Trumpism and populism”. He told TalkTV that his former colleague was “building on people’s fears, saying ‘the establishment hasn’t got it right’” and that Mr Anderson was failing to offer any solutions.

And the Liberal Democrats said Mr Sunak’s authority “lies in tatters” after the man he appointed deputy Tory chair defected to a rival party.

Mr Anderson’s defection means he is representing his third political party in six years. He was previously a long-time Labour member and served as a local councillor for the party before joining the Tories in 2018.

Labour’s Ashfield candidate Ms Keehn said the constituency “deserves so much better than this”, calling for a “fresh start with a Labour government and MP”. She said: “People are fed up with politicians playing political games just to suit themselves. It’s clear Rishi has lost control of his party.”

A Tory spokesperson said: “Lee himself said he fully accepted that the chief whip had no option but to suspend the whip in these circumstances. We regret he’s made this decision. Voting for Reform can’t deliver anything apart from a Keir Starmer-led Labour government.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in