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PMQs review: Natalie Elphicke’s defection to Labour steals the show

There may not be much overlap between her politics and Labour’s, but they do share a disdain for Rishi Sunak.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Everyone expected the PMQs after the local elections to be a bruising one for Rishi Sunak. What no one expected was that it would kick off with yet another defection from the Conservatives to Labour. And even if they had been given an inkling that another Tory MP might be contemplating following Dan Poulter’s lead from ten days ago, it’s hard to imagine anyone guessing it would be Natalie Elphicke.

She crossed the floor moments before PMQs began, with minimal fuss. Blink and you would have missed it. Indeed, there was genuine bafflement on the Conservative benches when Keir Starmer gleefully welcomed not just the newly elected member for Blackpool South Chris Webb but the MP for Dover to the Labour benches. Even Rishi Sunak looked startled for a moment.

Elphicke is, to put it mildly, a controversial addition to the Labour Party. She stood for the Tories in Dover in 2019 after the previous MP was suspended from the party due to sexual assault allegations – allegations for which he was then convicted and sentenced to two years. His name was Charlie Elphicke. His wife took over his seat, became a vocal backer of Boris Johnson, and downplayed the sexual assault. She called her husband’s sentence “excessive” and accused the court of being “on a bit of a mission”, and was briefly suspended from the Commons in 2021 for trying to influence his trial.

Other punchy Natalie Elphicke quotes include, “When will the left admit this is no refugee crisis… but simply illegal immigration?” (Mail on Sunday, October 2022) and, “Don’t trust Labour on immigration they really want open borders” (the Express, April 2023). That should spark some interesting conversations with her new colleagues. It may also push the definition of “broad church” to breaking point.

As Steve Baker, the government’s Northern Ireland Minister and erstwhile champion of the Tory Eurosceptics, noted on Twitter: “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.’” The left-wing group Momentum lost no time in releasing a statement saying Elphicke should have “no place in a Labour Party committed to progressive values and working-class people”.

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Clearly, there is not all that much ideology overlap between Starmer and his newest MP. What they do have in common is a shared disdain for the Prime Minister. In her defection statement, Elphicke did not hold back. “Under Rishi Sunak, the Conservatives have become a byword for incompetence and division,” she wrote. Some of her points – on the Tories’ failure to build more houses, reform leasehold and improve protections for renters – will have her new Labour colleagues nodding along. Others – like accusing the government of “failing to keep our borders safe and secure” – will raise eyebrows, not because they are unfair, but because it is difficult to outline ways in which Labour would be tougher.

Nonetheless, the message was a clear one: “Time for a Labour Government led by Keir Starmer. The General Election cannot come soon enough.” And that was essentially the theme of PMQs.

We got all the expected highlights. Starmer accusing Sunak of having lost “1,500 Tory councillors, half of his party’s mayors and a leadership election to a lettuce” (elegant bit of zeugma), taunting him about being represented by Labour politicians in the various places he calls home (Southampton where Sunak grew up, his constituency in North Yorkshire, London), bringing up the thousands of people who have crossed the Channel on small boats since the Prime Minister claimed “victory” over illegal immigration. In return, Sunak reminded everyone that Angela Rayner was facing a police investigation, called Starmer a “virtue-signalling lawyer from north London” who didn’t know how to get to Yorkshire without the Tube, and tried to goad the Labour leader into tripping up over Sadiq Khan’s latest comments on Israel and Gaza.

The latter might have landed a blow. The Gaza war remains the biggest area of danger for Starmer with regards to keeping control over his party, and Khan’s comments today, alongside those of Labour’s other mayors in recent days condemning Israel’s offensive in Rafah, expose the party’s divisions and are not helpful to him. But Sunak faltered and turned the attack line into a question. That gave Starmer the chance for an off-the-cuff joke that the election must be coming soon as “he’s getting ahead of himself in asking me questions”.

The atmosphere in the chamber was bad-tempered and feverish. The Tory benches were full and their roars were loud, but they did not feel particularly friendly towards the PM. At times Sunak had to shout over his own MPs. It may have been a coincidence, but there were fewer flashes of colour in the outfits Conservatives chose to wear today, giving their benches a sombre, almost funereal look.

One final note about Elphicke: for all that she is an unlikely fit in Labour and may turn out to cause Starmer more headaches than he anticipated, her loss from the Tory party should not be underestimated. As my colleague George Eaton quickly pointed out, her defection “means the Tories’ majority has more than halved since the general election: from 80 seats to just 38”.

[See also: Tory plotters thicken as Sunak clings on]

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