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11 May 2024

It’s no surprise Keir Starmer’s Labour took in Natalie Elphicke

I too was excited when I heard a Tory MP had defected. Then I remembered who she was.

By Jonn Elledge

This may not make me sound brilliant, I know, so please bear with me, but: the first emotion I felt on learning that Natalie Elphicke had defected to the Labour Party was delight. For reasons both personal and professional, I’m a sucker for any news story you can preface with the phrase: “The Tory government has been rocked by”. The MP for Dover crossing the floor at the start of PMQs absolutely fitted the bill.

But then I remembered who Natalie Elphicke was. 

If the MP for Dover’s surname is ringing faint bells that might be because she used to be married to the previous MP for Dover, Charlie Elphicke, who was suspended from the Conservative Party following sexual assault accusations from two of his staff. (Actually, he was suspended twice: once when the allegations were made in 2017, and again when he was charged in 2019. In between he was reinstated so that he could support Theresa May in a confidence vote. Goodo.) Mr Elphicke was found guilty in July 2020 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.

None of this should be taken as a reflection on his wife, of course. But she did publicly and enthusiastically try to cast doubt on his victims’ testimonies (she said one of the women was “embarrassingly and gushingly obsessed with him”), for which she apologised this week. Elphicke spoke in support of his appeal, arguing that, though he had “behaved badly”, the sentencing had been “excessive”. She was temporarily suspended from the Commons and admonished by the Standards Committee for trying to influence the judges, a matter for which she later apologised.

And Labour – an organisation that claims to be committed to social justice – has just welcomed her into the party.

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This is surely the worst strike against Natalie Elphicke but it isn’t the only one. Another thing she found herself backed into apologising for was her 2021 claim that the footballer and free school meals campaigner Marcus Rashford “should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics” after missing a crucial penalty for the England national team. Then there’s the hard line she’s taken on those desperate people currently crossing the Channel in small boats, castigating the Labour leadership for its “open borders” policies and attacking the Labour leader of Dover council for saying, “We should be more generous to illegal Channel migrants.” In her defection, she attacked Rishi Sunak’s failure to address the small-boats crisis – but she has not spoken out in favour of the one policy experts agree would do that: the creation of new, safe routes for asylum seekers. Indeed, she has claimed, wrongly, that such routes already exist.

That Keir Starmer’s party said yes is not entirely surprising. The defection of the Tory MP for a seat directly affected by the Prime Minister’s failure to deliver on a key pledge surely seemed too good to turn down. (This is, of course, why I was briefly and foolishly excited.) And Elphicke will not replace Mike Tapp as Labour’s candidate in Dover, so her views and history will not need to be considered by the next Labour government anyway. It seems, at first glance, a no-brainer.

But it’s the job of a potential government to look beyond that and consider what might come next. The enthusiastic embrace of a defector from the right of the Conservative Party has led to awkward questions for the Labour leadership about just how broad it’s willing to make its church – and even repeated enquiries about whether it would ever roll out a similar red carpet for Nigel Farage. This would be uncomfortable territory even if the party were not going out of its way to make clear its own left flank is not welcome, but it is. It all feels of a piece with the determination of some around Starmer to cut away any sections of the party’s agenda – pledges on workers’ rights, the Green New Deal – that might persuade somebody, somewhere, that this was a progressive government in waiting. The only thing that matters is winning: that means courting Tory votes, who count double, even if it alienates the left, who, it seems, barely count at all.

In such a campaign, welcoming Elphicke may work. Few people engage with the details of politics, and even Thursday’s front pages concerning splits and discomfort within Labour will likely have less impact than the 30-second radio news clips: most voters will hear the headline and get a whiff of the stench of decay gathering around the government, and know nothing more. Parliamentary defections over the issues Tory voters care about most also double as a permission slip for those same voters to reconsider their allegiance. On that level, reports from Dover suggest, this move may be effective.

But sometimes we all choose not to do things from which we would stand to benefit because they’re morally repugnant. The Labour Party simply should not be implying that those who care about migrants don’t matter.

The success of the Greens and independents in last week’s local elections is a reminder that hatred of the Tories runs much deeper than enthusiasm for Labour; after a general election, its support may well evaporate, and fast. To be successful, a Labour government will need both a platform worth delivering, and a coalition that’ll support it as it does. It’s not enough just to win. 

[See also: Will Labour’s alternative to the Rwanda scheme work?]

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