Keir Starmer's embrace of defecting Tory right-winger Natalie Elphicke may backfire on Labour – Christine Jardine

The Labour leader’s judgment is being questioned after he accepts a controversial and divisive politician into his party

Just when it seemed that the English local election results might see off Rishi Sunak’s government, Labour’s attempt to seal the deal might actually let him off the hook… for the moment. After months of riding high in the polls, does Keir Starmer’s decision to bring a high-profile, right-wing Conservative MP into his fold risk dislodging that precious Ming vase of electoral victory from his grasp?

On its own that might seem a stretch but this is a Labour party already trying to sooth open wounds over the Gaza conflict. If there was supposed to be a great fanfare for Natalie Elphicke’s crossing of the floor from Conservatives to Labour at Prime Minister’s Questions somebody forgot to order the trumpeters. Even MPs in the chamber weren’t quite sure what was going on and almost nobody on the opposition benches she joined looked comfortable.

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It’s not just that the Dover MP has been such a consistent and vociferous critic of Labour, particularly over immigration policy. Or that she’s made a string of controversial comments around her husband’s sex-offence case. What astonished most people was that such an avowedly right-wing politician could be welcomed by Labour.

Keir Starmer gives a thumbs up as he announces his plan to stop illegal small boat crossings on Friday, alongside new Labour MP Natalie Elphicke (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Keir Starmer gives a thumbs up as he announces his plan to stop illegal small boat crossings on Friday, alongside new Labour MP Natalie Elphicke (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Keir Starmer gives a thumbs up as he announces his plan to stop illegal small boat crossings on Friday, alongside new Labour MP Natalie Elphicke (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

As events unfolded, I was in a TV studio with Conservative Stephen Hammond and Labour’s Angela Eagle. Both looked gobsmacked, with Stephen repeatedly opining: “She is more right wing than I am.” When Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt was jokingly asked about defection by one of her colleagues, she retorted: “They wouldn’t have me, I’m too left-wing.”

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And there is the nub of the problem for Starmer and his party. Over the course of a week, they have managed to go from left-of-centre alternative to the Tories to well a party which welcomes right-wing Tories. If there were some raised eyebrows over Dan Poulter’s defection a week earlier, Elphicke’s demanded smelling salts for some.

Political defections are, of course, not that unusual. Last year Dr Lisa Cameron quit the SNP for the Conservatives. My own party benefitted, briefly, from a flurry of defections from both sides of the political divide in 2019. And of course, our modern identity as the Liberal Democrats has its roots in the departure of the ‘Gang of Four’ – Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, William Rogers and David Owen – from Labour.

But normally there is some discernible policy reason or evidence of dissatisfaction before someone up sticks and leaves. In this case, nobody seems able to come up with anything credible other than an inexplicable conversion to Labour’s new policy on small boats.

However, while the defector’s motivation might be causing conjecture, it is the Labour leader’s judgment that is being questioned. Where is the wisdom, or benefit, of accepting such a controversial and divisive character into his own ranks?

It is possible that members of the public will not care, or perhaps accept it as evidence that Labour’s attraction is widening. But what if it sows an extra seed of doubt for those Labour supporters, members and MPs already voicing their opposition to their party’s position on Israel and Gaza?

The picture may be clearer by Wednesday’s PMQs. But then a week, as we all know, can be a very long time in politics.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West