Labour’s backlash against Natalie Elphicke will reshape the party

Female Labour MPs, in particular, are furious at their leader’s embrace of a former Liz Truss cheerleader, who defended her sex-offender former husband. But Starmer’s masterstroke could have unforeseen benefits – and even offer a way back for Diane Abbott, says John Rentoul

Thursday 09 May 2024 12:22 BST
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with former Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke in his parliamentary office
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with former Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke in his parliamentary office (PA)

Keir Starmer was expecting a backlash from his own party when he accepted Natalie Elphicke’s defection from the Conservative Party. That was one reason for springing the surprise two minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions – it meant Labour MPs had no time to react before it was used for maximum advantage to humiliate Rishi Sunak.

But the reaction has been fiercer than Starmer expected. The Labour leader seems to have underestimated the dismay among female Labour MPs, in particular, who are appalled by Elphicke’s defence of her former husband, convicted of sexual assault in 2020.

Many Labour members are outraged at Starmer’s hypocrisy in welcoming a right-wing Tory while keeping out Diane Abbott, the trailblazing campaigner for equal rights. “Keir Starmer would sell his grandmother,” said one.

There have been plenty of Labour voices publicly expressing their doubts. Jess Phillips, the former shadow minister for domestic violence, said Elphicke should “account for her actions”. She said: “I’m all for forgiveness, but I do think that that needs some explaining.”

Neil Kinnock said: “I think we have got to be choosy to a degree about who we allow to join our party because it’s a very broad church, but churches have walls and there are limits.” He speaks with authority as the Labour leader who expelled the Militant tendency, arguing that revolutionary Marxists lay outside those limits.

More ominous for Starmer, though, are the anonymous rumblings from within the shadow cabinet.

One member said that “people are upset and angry right across the party about the decision”. They can hardly be dismissed as virtue-signalling if they are signalling their supposed virtue anonymously – there is no doubt about the strength of feeling that Elphicke’s values are alien to most of her new colleagues.

This is something that Conservative MPs have been eager to point out. Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister, tweeted: “I have been searching in vain for a Conservative MP who thinks themself to the right of Natalie Elphicke. One just quipped: ‘I didn’t realise there was any room to her right.’”

Just because he is desperate to cover his embarrassment at such a visible sign that his party is falling apart does not make his charge untrue.

There is always some discomfort on both sides when an MP defects: the psychological barriers to betrayal are high. It was striking to note that as Elphicke sat behind Starmer in the Commons yesterday, her Labour neighbours hardly acknowledged her – neither Jessica Morden, Starmer’s parliamentary private secretary, on one side, nor Chi Onwurah, a shadow science minister, on the other.

Even when moderates cross the floor, such as Dan Poulter, who defected last week, there is an awkwardness, especially when journalists spend the first few hours digging up things that the defector said when they were following the party line only a few days before.

But Elphicke is in a different league, not just as a member of the European Research Group, a strong supporter of the Rwanda policy and a (brief) supporter of Liz Truss, but as someone who sought to diminish the pain suffered by the victims of her former husband’s sexual assaults.

As is often the case, John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, spoke for many Labour members when he said: “I’m a great believer in the powers of conversion, but I think even this one would have strained the generosity of spirit of John the Baptist, quite honestly.”

He said that if Elphicke was allowed to be a Labour MP, then Starmer would have to grant the same status to Diane Abbott, who has after all apologised for her crass statement a year ago that Jews experienced prejudice but not racism.

It is certainly hard to explain why Abbott should be kept out when yesterday Labour used the hullabaloo about Elphicke’s defection as cover for quietly ending the suspension as a Labour MP of Kate Osamor, who had apologised for applying the word “genocide” to Israel’s action in Gaza – in a comment about Holocaust Memorial Day.

We know why Starmer is doing it, of course. He wants to reinforce his appeal to the Brexity Boris swing voters who went over to the Tories at the last election but who are now flocking back to Labour.

And if that means putting Anneliese Dodds, the sweet-natured Labour chair, on TV to say that Elphicke is a “good, natural fit” for her party, then that is a price Starmer is more than willing to pay.

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