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11 March 2024updated 12 Mar 2024 9:43am

How dangerous is Lee Anderson’s defection for the Tories?

For now, there is little sign that Conservative colleagues will follow the Ashfield MP into Reform UK.

By Rachel Cunliffe

In one of the most predictable “shock moves” ever to hit Westminster, Lee Anderson has defected from the Conservatives to join Reform (formerly known as the Brexit Party). Although “defect” is possibly not the right word, given Anderson had already been suspended from the Tory party for his comments suggesting “Islamists” had “got control” of the London mayor Sadiq Khan, and has spent the past two weeks whiplessly wandering parliament in search of a party.

It is hardly a surprise that Anderson has found a political home with the populist right-wing party founded by Nigel Farage. If anything, the question is why it has taken so long. He has been goading Rishi Sunak ever since he quit in January as deputy chair of the Conservatives to rebel on an amendment to the government’s Rwanda bill. In late February, just days after his suspension from the Tories, it was reported that Anderson had met Reform leader Richard Tice in a Holiday Inn close to the MP’s Ashfield constituency. Going back further, Anderson has frequently used his presenting gig on GB News (for which he is paid £100,000 a year, in addition to his MP’s salary) to speak warmly about Farage (who also has a show on the same channel) and Reform. And while he did speak at the launch of Liz Truss’s Popular Conservatism movement at the start of February, there was not much in his speech that would usually be branded “Conservative”.

Plus, of course, Anderson has a history of switching political allegiances. Reform is his third party in six years. Before standing as a Conservative candidate in the 2019 election, he was a Labour councillor in Ashfield. (He was suspended from his local Labour association in 2018 for using a digger to try to stop Traveller groups from setting up camps.)

The news will be an obvious boost to Reform, whose aim, Tice told me when we met in November, was to “punish” the Tories as much as possible. Moreover, for the first time in the party’s five-year history, it now has representation in Westminster – despite its failure to win a seat. It will give Tice and Farage some much-needed momentum, given their somewhat disappointing record to date. While opinion polls put support for Reform at around 10-12 per cent, the party has struggled to achieve that in actual elections. It got its best result in the Wellingborough by-election last month, where it won 13 per cent, but floundered a few weeks later in Rochdale. In a contest in which Labour was forced to disown its own candidate, and in a constituency that voted heavily to Leave in 2016, and which has a large community of the kind of disillusioned working-class voters Reform is targeting, the party came a miserable sixth with 6.3 per cent.

Reform insists it is not simply a party for disgruntled former Tories but can attract support from voters of both the left and the right who are frustrated with the two main parties and feel strongly about issues such as immigration and the costs of net zero. Rochdale suggested its power is limited. Tice and Farage will no doubt be hoping that a high-profile defection gives it renewed relevance. In a way, Anderson represents exactly the kind of voter they want to appeal to: those from working-class communities that historically voted Labour but backed Brexit, gave Boris Johnson a chance in 2019, but who are now feeling abandoned and deeply disappointed.

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Winning over Anderson, however, could prove a headache for Reform. Anderson is no fan of Tice, which is perhaps why the decision to move was so protracted. (Anderson has previously called Tice a “pound-shop Farage” and “Reform’s answer to Diane Abbott”.) Judging from recent history, party loyalty is not one of Anderson’s top priorities.

There is also a question of whether there’s enough room in Reform for another headliner. Despite Farage’s lack of a seat and vague role within the party he founded (he is “honorary president”), he remains without a doubt Reform’s star. With his GB News show and prominence as an anti-woke Brexit warrior, Anderson has his own personal brand to cultivate and clearly enjoys the spotlight. Bringing him aboard runs the risk of a clash of egos at the top of the fledgling party.

For now, Anderson seems content to focus on causing trouble for Sunak. He has said he won’t be calling a by-election in Ashfield (unlike Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless when they defected from the Conservatives to Ukip in 2014), leaving him with a reduced democratic mandate but a prime position from which to needle the Conservatives. He may find, however, that his power is muted now he’s out of the party. While it doesn’t look good for Sunak to lose yet another MP (the 80-seat majority Johnson won in 2019 is now down to 46), more than a few Conservatives are breathing a sigh of relief that they no longer have to go out and defend whatever provocative comment Anderson has recently made. And despite much speculation, there is little sign that any of his Tory colleagues will join him on his journey rightwards.

This may be one of the rare occasions in politics where it is more expedient to have a disruptive figure outside of the proverbial tent.

[See also: Jeremy Hunt’s Budget was a work of fiction]

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