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Why did Keir Starmer let Natalie Elphicke join Labour?

The odd couple. Credit: Getty

May 9, 2024 - 10:00am

“I have been searching in vain for a Conservative MP who thinks themself to the right of Natalie Elphicke,” tweeted Steve Baker yesterday. The former Brexit “Spartan” followed that with a purported quip he heard from a colleague: “I didn’t realise there was any room to her right.”

Elphicke’s defection to the Labour benches this week was entirely unforeseen. Unlike Dan Poulter, who crossed the floor in similar fashion last month, the Dover MP was meant to be an ideologue — her membership of the European Research Group putting her comfortably to the Right of the Prime Minister, let alone Keir Starmer. Elphicke’s desertion is like Zarah Sultana joining the Tories, claiming only Rishi Sunak can be trusted on bringing water, rail and mail into public ownership.

In explaining her reasons for defecting, Labour’s newest MP spoke about the housing crisis and the safety and security of Britain’s borders. Still, given that she won’t be standing for Labour at the next election (the party says its candidate for Dover remains Mike Tapp) it’s unclear how she can further that agenda.

And on the issue of border security, her newfound praise for Starmer is all the more strange given that, just last year, she wrote in the Daily Express that the Labour leader had “pledged to rip up our world-leading partnership to remove illegal migrants to Rwanda”. Given Labour’s position on Rwanda hasn’t changed, it’s unclear whether Elphicke has changed her mind or was just making that up.

All of which makes her central claim yesterday — that Sunak has abandoned the centre — bizarre. After all, Rwanda is the one policy commitment he looks to be seeing through, and is one of the vanishingly few areas with clear water between Labour and the Conservatives. Then there’s the fact that for the Government to be drifting wildly to the Right would require it to be actually doing something.

Indeed, the most conspicuous feature of the Sunak premiership is the absence of a broader vision. As GDP per capita stands still, and living standards stagnate in a manner unseen for a generation, where is the evidence for this slide? Are we meant to believe that successive cuts to national insurance contributions are zealotry? Or that the ban on single-use vapes is evidence of a deranged fanaticism?

The failure of the Conservative Party is one of personnel and original thinking. Yet the instinct of Elphicke, like so much of the country’s media-political blob, is to blame “ideology”. For 40 years we’ve been told that less ideology means better outcomes, so if the outcomes are bad that can only mean too many out-there ideas. Lost on the likes of Elphicke, and almost all of her colleagues — old and new — is that this mindset is the problem.

The more interesting question is whether it was wise for Starmer to let Elphicke join his party. Ahead of last week’s local elections, every source I spoke to — regardless of rosette or geography — claimed there was little enthusiasm for Labour. Polling confirms this: while one in five voters expect Starmer to be great or good as PM, more than one in three believe he will be poor or terrible. That can still be enough to win of course: just look at Joe Biden’s win in 2020. But it’s hard to believe such a problem is helped by welcoming an MP who labelled Starmer “Sir Softie” and nominated Liz Truss for Tory leader in 2022.

Last week was a stellar one for both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. And while SW1 will presume the Elphicke story is good for attracting Tory-Labour switchers (it likely is), there are downsides. Party management is one, a problem as metro mayors diffuse political power across the country. What Labour stands for is another. For now, as the Tories collapse (just 45% of their 2019 voters think they deserve to win the next election), that is less of a problem. But in government it will be a rod for Starmer’s back — particularly if growth fails to magically appear.

It’s starting to feel like the Labour leader is taking his own base for granted in a manner reminiscent of when a David Cameron ally called Tory members “swivel-eyed loons”. Supporters of the Labour leader would respond that these are nice problems to have — and that a balkanising Left in government, all while enjoying a majority of 100, is a better quandary than remaining in Opposition. Perhaps, but Starmer has little insulation from claims that he’s just like the rest. If he fails to deliver within months of achieving power, that will become a very real problem. Expect chancers like Elphicke to knock him on the way down, too.


Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. 

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Daniel Chalkin
Daniel Chalkin
11 days ago

My own view is that he did it to put pressure on Sunak, to make him appear weak, lacking the confidence of his Party and ultimately to try and force him to go to the polls. Whilst I agree this defection makes little sense, it’s only causing consternation amongst political commentators or activists. The general public will not know who she is or what she stands for, all they will see is another Conservative fleeing a sinking ship.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
11 days ago

Starmer is a pretty amoral individual and I dread to think the new directions in which he will take UK foreign policy in support of Washington neoconservatism. At best, regime change in Iran, I imagine; at worst, dragging Russia and North Korea into a war with China over Taiwan.

j watson
j watson
11 days ago

Hacks and the better informed might see this an odd thing for Starmer to do. The vast majority will just hear another Tory thinks they are a lost cause and Labour not so bad.
He’s probably held his nose on this one, but may just have calculated better to absorb than reject. She’s not the Dover Labour candidate and that’s telling too.
Back to her reason for defecting – she’s clearly a strange one, but it’s informative too. Somewhere in that brain she’s grasped the rhetoric got way out ahead of practical policy responses.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
11 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Hacks and the better informed might see this an odd thing for Starmer to do. The vast majority will just hear another Tory thinks they are a lost cause and Labour not so bad.

Yes, because anything they do is fine so long as they get away with it, eh?

D Glover
D Glover
11 days ago
Reply to  j watson

The Marx that Sir Keir emulates is not Karl, it’s Groucho;

Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 days ago
Reply to  j watson

“..The vast majority will just hear another Tory thinks they are a lost cause..” – absolutely “…and Labour not so bad..” – absolutely no one thinks that, probably not even in the Labour party, except perhaps Lammy.

I will make a bet with you if you are up for it: I think Labour will come in with a huge majority, followed by the shortest electoral honeymoon in history, followed by a rolling series of governance implosions, as events they don’t have clue how to deal with overwhelm them. Not that the Tories would do any better I hasten to add.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
11 days ago

Why wouldn’t Starmer accept Elphicke? His job is to get Labour elected and then provide another Blair-style bonanza for the rent-seeking middle class – lots of jobs for the girls, profits for the bankers and yet another house price boom based on mass immigration. All paid for by the small businesses that keep the whole thing just about afloat. Dog-whistling to Tories is central to the strategy.

The expansion of the state long ago ceased to be a means to an end. Nowadays it’s the end in itself.

But of course Aron knows this just well as the rest of us.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 days ago

Kate Osamor now has the Labour whip with Natalie Elphicke but not with Jeremy Corbyn or Diane Abbott. After Elphicke, they had to give it back to someone on the Left, but it could not have been either of those of whom most people had heard. Shame on Osamor for saying yes.

In 2021, Elphicke was one of three Conservative MPs who were suspended for a day, with another two ordered to apologise to the House, because they had tried to influence the judge in the trial of her then husband, and constituency predecessor, Charlie Elphicke. A former Director of Public Prosecutions welcomes such a person to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Expect his Government to be characterised by such lawless bullying of independent institutions. No one does that quite like the Labour Right. Elphicke should fit right in.

Labour is now the party of absolutely anyone who subscribes to neoconservative foreign policy, no matter what else, if anything, they might happen to think. Neoconservative foreign policy depends on neoliberal economic policy, and is therefore incompatible with the democratic socialism that the Labour Party professes in its constitution, and therefore on Elphicke’s new membership card, although conveniently without defining it. If you doubt that incompatibility, then recall the last Labour Government.

Asked on Radio Four on Monday whether she was a socialist, Rachel Reeves replied, “I’m a social democrat”, but that turned out to mean the position of Nick Boles, which is easily deduced from the many publications of Policy Exchange and from Boles’s own record as a Minister under David Cameron. That rules out those of us who believe in securing economic equality and international peace through the democratic political control of the means to those ends. Although wherever possible some of us have always avoided such terminology as a divisive distraction, all of us used to call that social democracy or democratic socialism depending on the audience. But if the former is now Boles and the latter is now Elphicke, then what are we to call our position when we did have to put a label on it?

Since the monetarist Labour Budget of December 1976, a single political project has governed Britain. All three parties have been in office, but changes of party have been imperceptible from the policies alone. In government, each side has done exactly as the other side would have done if it had stayed in government. It is irrelevant who was the Leader of the Opposition at any given time. A Foot or even a Kinnock Government might have been politically different from Thatcher or Major, but a Callaghan, Healey or Hattersley Government would not have been. A Corbyn, or to an extent even an Ed Miliband, Government might have been politically different from Cameron, May or Johnson, but a Brown and then a Balls or a David Miliband Government would not have been.

William Hague and Michael Howard did not even pretend that they would have been politically different from Tony Blair, and a Government in which John Major had held on until he had felt like handing over to Ken Clarke certainly would not have been on anything apart for hereditary peers and foxhunting. In 2005 and 2010, with everything else going on in Britain and the world, one third of such people as campaigned for the Conservative Party did so only on the issue of foxhunting. That passed for politics when I was in my twenties and early thirties. Here we are again.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 days ago

Where did my comment go? This is becoming beyond a joke, UnHerd.

David McKee
David McKee
11 days ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Yes, they are getting a little overenthusiastic with the delete button, aren’t they? It’s getting more and more like the Guardian. It’s very odd: unlike the Guardian, the vast majority of the commenters here are entirely sane, understand English grammar and they can spell.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

And we are all paying subscribers.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
11 days ago

Dan Poulter has never voted as a Labour MP, and Natalie Elphicke repeatedly declined to do so yesterday. People who have been without the whip for years are more reliable than that to the Whips. In a statement undoubtedly approved by Keir Starmer, and delivered in his presence, Elphicke announced that “The centre ground has been abandoned” by Rishi Sunak, whereas Labour now “occupies the centre ground of British politics”. By “the centre ground”, she means her own position up to noon yesterday, and indeed still. Starmer agrees.

On the day that Elphicke was welcomed as a non-playing member, the Labour Party centrally imposed its own choice of Leader on Sunderland City Council because the Leader since 2018, Graeme Miller, had supported the selection of Jamie Driscoll as the Labour candidate for North East Metro Mayor. He had fully supported Kim McGuinness once she had been selected. But he had dared to favour someone else at the selection stage. So, following significant gains for Labour in Sunderland under his Leadership last week, he has been purged by a WhatsApp message from London. How a Leader of the Opposition runs his party is how he would run the country as Prime Minister. We have been warned.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 days ago

Why did Natalie Elphicke defect? Another day, another grifter just doin’ their thing…

Why did Keir Starmer let Natalie Elphicke join Labour? Another day, another grifter just doin’ their thing…

But I suppose it’s possible she’s undergone a Damascene conversion, has she been turning up in the HoC with a copy of ‘Das Kapital’ under her arm lately?

Elon Workman
Elon Workman
10 days ago

It would be more helpful if the writer gave us his insight on what he thinks Keir Starmer will deliver within months of achieving power given that we know the Leader of the Opposition in his own words ‘prefers Davos to Westminster’

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
10 days ago

The reason she defected to Labour is simple: to embarrass Sunak just before PMQs.
The reason Labour accepted her is simple: to embarrass Sunak just before PMQs.
Presumably both parties knew the cracks would begin to appear as soon as the embarrassment was over. But they assumed the instant gain was worth the long-term pain.
I suspect they will quietly part ways and her membership card may not even make it to her letterbox!

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
10 days ago

As much as Starmer knows that this move will anger the left of his party, he can be pretty sure that more Conservatives will be driven to vote Reform as they conclude that there is “no real difference between the two parties”. This will obviously be electorally useful to Labour.
One suspects that Mr Mandelson could have been behind this move.