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Opinion

Has Starmer misjudged how welcoming a toxic Tory will play out?

12 May 2024 8 minute read
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer celebrating at Blackpool Cricket Club after Chris Webb was declared winner in the Blackpool South by-election. Photo Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Ethan Jones

One of the biggest political stories of the week has been the defection of hard-right former ERG Conservative MP, Natalie Elphicke, to the Labour Party.

As Elphicke took her seat behind Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions, everyone looked on in shock. Jonathan Gullis flapped around like a hooked fish and a visibly rattled Rishi Sunak appeared overwhelmed.

The defection has proven to be controversial. Some are morally outraged as others theorise that Starmer is a great strategist. The short term impact was a disastrous PMQs for Sunak as he seemed unable to cope with being blindsided.

A cockahoop Starmer grinned away like the Cheshire Cat as he tore into Sunak’s record. It was a jolly good jape in the Westminster bubble that rattled Sunak, the wider optics can be spun that the Tories are falling apart and Starmer can claim his reformed Labour Party is a “broad church” – unless you are Diane Abbott.

Labour people including MPs, Lords, activists and members were absolutely outraged. Opponents on the left felt vindicated at recent criticisms of Starmer dragging Labour to the right. But now that the dust has settled, what does the defection say about the Labour Party and Keir Starmer – the person most likely to be the UK’s next Prime Minister?

Starmer the Strategist

Some sections of the media and political commentary have laid out what they theorise are Starmer’s motives. These theories range from over the top fawning to cold hard pragmatism. I think it is important to understand the pragmatic side of the argument rather than footballified cheerleading.

The “grand strategy” theory has been most clearly articulated by former civil servant, Andrew Levi. Levi thorises that Starmer is on a mission to embed Labour as the party of the UK for decades to come. In order to achieve this Keir Starmer can’t do this from the “centre ground” alone. Therefore Starmer must attract those voters who are flirting with the extremes. The defection of Elphicke signals to those considering Reform UK that it is ok to vote for Labour instead.

Levi then touches on the potential risks as to whether the move will backfire. It may lose some of Labour’s existing supporters. The political message Starmer wishes to signal may not sufficiently cut through. Would Starmer be able to hold together the coalition he’s attempting to build across the centre, traditional Labour and the right.

Levi’s theory concludes that Keir Starmer’s vision for the UK is to lay three clear foundations to build from; economic stability, strong national defence capability and secure borders.

The foundations will then allow Labour to move forward a long term plan of five “fully funded national missions.” These national missions are; to get the UK building again, switch on Great British Energy, revitalise the NHS, be tough on crime and break down the barriers to opportunity.

Levi suggests that Elphicke embodies all of these foundations and national missions.

Who is Natalie Elphicke?

To understand the opposition to this defection you need to know who Elphicke is and why that makes the whole saga controversial.

Natalie Elphicke came to prominence during the fall of her then-husband, Charlie Elphicke MP, whose seat she has occupied since 2019. Mr Elphicke lost his seat following a conviction for three counts of sexual assault and was handed two years in prison.

Mrs Elphicke caused uproar when she victim-blamed the survivors of her husband’s crimes, following his conviction in 2020. At the time, Labour opponents said she’d “minimised what was predatory behaviour and sexual abuse” as well as branding the comments “abhorrent.” Elphicke finally apologised for her comments on Thursday.

Elphicke was also suspended from the Commons in July 2021 having been found to have used her position as an MP in an attempt to leverage the sentencing judge.

Elphicke’s baggage is not limited to that shocking incident. In early 2022, at the height of the P&O fire and re-hire scandal, Elphicke attempted to bandwagon the protests. She appeared at a demonstration of redundant P&O staff in Dover. Elphicke joined in the chants of “shame on you” until realising that the protestors were aiming the chant at her. Elphicke, of course, had voted against a bill that would have outlawed the practice of fire and re-hire; denouncing it as “militant unionism.”

Eplhicke has also trolled the football player, Marcus Rashford, online following a penalty miss during England’s UEFA Euro 2020 Final defeat to Italy. You may recall that several black English players, including Marcus Rashford, were victims of online racist abuse online following that game. Elphicke later apologised for her comments, which also criticised Rashford’s political campaigning for free school meals in England.

The Dover MP has made a career of scaremongering about refugees and migrants. In 2022 she claimed that there “is no refugee crisis… but simply illegal immigration.” She has consistently criticised Labour’s migration policy, claiming that Starmer wanted “open borders” in an article for the Daily Express just last year. She also appears to believe that Sunak’s ‘stop the boats’ policy is insufficient.

It should hardly be surprising that many, including those in Labour itself, are deeply troubled by her defection. Some may be able to hold their nose and give Starmer a free pass on this one as it’s all part of the grand strategy he’s playing. However, it should be reasonable to understand why many people find that Labour’s embrace of Elphicke and, by extension, the Tory ERG wing offends their principles.

Cynical opportunism? 

I do think the potential risks Andrew Levi identified are pertinent. These risks outweigh the positives, from a Labour perspective. They will play into a growing unease for many with Labour’s pivot to the right.

LBC presenter, Iain Dale, this last Wednesday put forward the case that Starmer had made an error in judgment. Dale argued that “adult political parties often reject defectors because they think they’re just doing it for their own reasons. And we have nothing to gain by this apart from the short term political adrenaline rush of making fun of the other party. Because we’ve got one of theirs.”

Dale goes on to brand the defection as “laughable” and highlights the comments Elphicke has made about Starmer and Labour. It was Elphicke who coined the Tory nickname of “Sir Softy” for Keir Starmer, which became a regular childish taunt Sunak would deploy at PMQs. She has also claimed that Labour’s immigration policy is not to be trusted.

Yet now Elphicke has defected to Labour. It is important to note that she is standing down at the next General Election, so will not be contesting her Dover seat. So why has Elphicke done this? It isn’t to save her seat as an MP and I feel comfortable saying it isn’t because her political views have undergone a damascene conversion. Iain Dale concludes that there may have been a peerage on offer for Elphicke to cross the floor.

What do you think?

Is Keir Starmer playing a genius game of 4D chess that is wooing voters from across the political spectrum? Is he a cynical opportunist who couldn’t resist one-upping Rishi Sunak at PMQs? Has he misjudged how welcoming such a toxic Tory would play?

I feel that it is an error from the Labour leader, in both the senses of principle and pragmatism. Courting the Reform UK and the hard-right ERG Tory vote, at the expense of the traditional Labour left, is a move with all the ingredients to backfire on Starmer.

The defection will leave those who have already abandoned voting Labour vindicated. It may push some of those still holding their noses intending to vote Labour away towards Plaid, the SNP and the Greens. It may lose Labour key boots on the ground when the General Election campaign is eventually called. The benefits seem fleeting and the negatives seem pretty clear, especially if Labour keep courting the hard-right vote over small boats.

The Elphicke defection has certainly caused a major stir on the UK political scene. What some Westminster watchers think is Sun-Tzu level strategising by Starmer may well turn out to be an own goal. It is very hard to picture Natalie Elphicke and Zarah Sultana in the same party, or Elphicke and Mark Drakeford, or Elphicke and Beth Winter.

Will many people vote specifically because of Natalie Elphicke? No, those that do will very likely be limited to the Dover constituency. But it may well prove to be a supporting act in a deeper disaffection with Labour that a substantive number on the left of UK politics feel.

Labour people dismissing others, who are justifiably shocked, as Tory-enablers isn’t particularly helpful. Especially when you are welcoming hard-right Tories into your own party.

For some politics is the art of compromise, for others it’s a game of opportunism and for others it is an ironclad set of principles. What may seem genius in some quarters is seen as despicable in others.


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Annibendod
Annibendod
13 days ago

For me it clearly outlines what the Starmer project is. The Tories have simultaneously tacked to the hard right and proven utterly incompetent and corrupt. In that void, Starmer has presented Labour as the Tory party they think the public wants. And yes, you could say that they will have some success in doing this. But they have sacrificed any shred of the progressive party they ever were to do this. We’ve already seen them bleed their Left Wing voters elsewhere. For me, once more, I am focussed on the consequences for Cymru. We move forwards when we build our… Read more »

Maesglas
Maesglas
13 days ago

It tells us so much about Starmer’s flaky character and lack of political beliefs. For if he believed in any social democratic values, even leaving aside his numerous u turns, it’s inconceivable that he could reconcile them with welcoming people like this into the party. Added to that he is bereft of ideas and isn’t even offering any policies of interest to the voters. He is exceptionally lucky to be in the job whilst the Tories are loathed. That’s why his vacuous party has such a big opinion poll lead.

Neil
Neil
13 days ago

Despite a deep loathing of this Tory government, I’ve been considering not voting for Labour at the general election. Starmer’s decision to welcome this Tory MP alongside the continuing exclusion of Diane Abbott, together with Gething’s behaviour, has finally convinced me to abandon Labour. I’m voting Plaid or Green, whoever puts up a good candidate in my constituency.

Jeff
Jeff
13 days ago

Time will tell. She was already a known quantity but the usual suspect press and her colleagues kept mum. Now there are attacks, that should be the story.

Maybe gaming on a late 2024 election things will have died down and the new probably MP for that constituency will have hit the ground running and this lady disappears to the back benches never to be heard again. But it does seem to say no matter what you voted last election, lend us your vote this election.

CapM
CapM
13 days ago
Reply to  Jeff

There’s a big difference between how those who vote and those that are voted for should be judged. Poulter looks to me that he’s a strategic gain for the Labour party even with his decade plus of apparently not noticing the running down of the NHS while he was a member of government running it down. A net gain in votes for Labour. With Elphicke I think some right wing Tories will vote Labour but only if the Election comes before they forget her. Labour will I think loose as many if not more voters to other parties because they… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
13 days ago
Reply to  CapM

Mike Tapp is the one who you (Dover and Deal) will be voting for at the next GE.

CapM
CapM
13 days ago
Reply to  Jeff

Labour to have a net loss of votes across the UK because of Elphicke being embraced by Starmer.
Unlikely to affect the number of seats overall Labour get in England.
But then England is another country.

Jeff
Jeff
13 days ago
Reply to  CapM

Only the X at the ballot box counts. The Tory spin machine seems to be working.

Zahawi in the press today, that is flying under the radar cos press obsession.

Blinedig
Blinedig
13 days ago
Reply to  CapM

The more I read of this the more I wonder if she was a cynical plant from the Tories to encourage some to think they may as well vote Tory. I despair

hdavies15
hdavies15
13 days ago

Starmer is indiscriminate. No doubt he’ll get a spinner to cast it as inclusive, unprejudiced etc etc blah blah. Increasingly as big a Wanchor as his main English opponents, Sunak and Davey.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
12 days ago

I feel the biggest casualty to Starmer’ and co’s move to the right is the working class. We are not represented in Westminster, or in the Senedd if it comes to that. The LP have swallowed the failed tory mantra of monetarist policy wholeheartedly. Thus life is unlikely to get much better for most people, but no doubt politicians and the rich will gain hugely
They wont get my vote, plaid are the only ones worth bothering to vote for

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
12 days ago

Mr keir starmer is a scab!

Erisian
Erisian
9 days ago

Is it clear that she would be offered the chance to run as a Labour candidate at the next election? I doubt she could possibly win a seat, so let’s just enjoy the Tory discomfort for now, and see what happens…

Arthur
Arthur
6 days ago

The labour party in Wales is so much worse than the starmer party in England.the welsh labour have simultaneously tacked to the hard left and proven to be utterly incompetent and corrupt. Welsh Labour are progressing to a dictatorship they refuse to listen to the people who through tax pay their wages. The new voting system where people vote for a party and not the person is open to abuse and nepotism.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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