Natalie Elphicke’s defection: a brutal operation to demolish Sunak’s crumbling power

Labour’s latest defector makes an unlikely left-winger, but shows that Keir Starmer is totally ruthless, writes John Rentoul

Wednesday 08 May 2024 15:45 BST
Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover, has crossed the floor to join the Labour Party
Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover, has crossed the floor to join the Labour Party (Getty)

I asked a top Labour source just before Prime Minister’s Questions if Keir Starmer was going to ask about the £46bn cost of Rishi Sunak’s ambition to abolish national insurance contributions. “No. Not this week,” I was told.

A few minutes later I found out why, when an MP took her place behind Starmer, who turned round to shake her hand. She didn’t look like any Labour MP I recognised. She looked like – well, you know the rest. She was Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover, who has a reputation as a maverick, right-wing Conservative.

Starmer had his best outing as a result. Sunak kept his poise, but could not conceal the humiliation of losing another MP to the other side. He knew that two defections in two weeks makes his government look like a regime coming to a disorderly end.

Starmer piled ridicule upon insult, and he linked the defection to the Tories’ poor local election results last week. He went on a tour of Sunak’s “many places he calls home”, saying that the prime minister is now represented by a Labour mayor in London and another Labour mayor in North Yorkshire.

The defection was handled with brutal efficiency by Labour, designed to maximise Sunak’s discomfort even at the expense of some opposite discomfort on the Labour benches. Until recently, Elphicke was “one of the Tory MPs trying to drag the party to the right”, according to Stephen Hammond, the One Nation moderate Tory who is standing down at the general election but is not defecting to Labour. She was “disliked by her old party and will be distrusted by the new”, he told Sky News.

Labour MPs were indeed free with disparaging comments about Elphicke off the record, pointing out that she is a Liz Truss supporter who has criticised Labour’s policies on small boats. Unlike Dan Poulter, the NHS doctor and MP who crossed the floor last week, she was not one of the centrist Tories on defection watch.

But Starmer has seized on this contradiction as a way of dramatising his “changed Labour Party” message. She is a strong Brexiteer, so Labour used her defection statement to announce that “the Labour Party has changed out of all recognition”, including that “it has accepted Brexit”.

Elphicke blames Sunak for toppling the leader she admired, Boris Johnson, saying in her statement: “The elected prime minister was ousted in a coup led by the unelected Rishi Sunak.”

This is a theme that Labour is enjoying with hypocritical glee. Having helped bring Johnson down by assailing him as unfit for public office, Labour is now taunting the Tories for having got rid of him. Two weeks ago, Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, stood in at Prime Minister’s Questions and asked the deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden if he had “finally realised that when he stabbed Boris Johnson in the back to get his mate into No 10, he was ditching their biggest election-winner for a pint-sized loser”.

People were so distracted by the inexcusable reference to Sunak’s height that they missed the real significance of her question, which was Labour’s embrace of Johnson.

What it tells us is that Starmer is prepared to go to unexpected lengths to widen Tory divisions and to portray the government as a collapsing edifice. Labour MPs who ask, “Are we really praising Boris as an election winner?” or “Do we really want right-wingers such as Elphicke on our side?” are swallowing their doubts, but those doubts are real.

Starmer doesn’t care. He knows that there are voters out there who quite liked Boris, and who think Sunak was wrong to oust him; he knows that most voters won’t pay attention to Elphicke’s record – they will notice only that two Tory MPs have defected to Labour in two weeks. They might even agree with Elphicke that Sunak has failed to stop the boats or to build enough houses, even if they cannot be sure that Labour would do any better.

And if some anonymous Labour MPs criticise Starmer for being opportunistic and unprincipled, he will be deeply untroubled. If the Labour leader is seen as ruthless and single-minded in his attempt to remove a government despised as incompetent, out of touch and on the way out, it will do him no harm at all.

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