Natalie Elphicke defection: Keir Starmer risks feeding the perception that politics is ‘all just a bit of a game’

Natalie Elphicke is the third Conservative MP to defect to Labour since the last election – but the first Tory rightwinger. She had enthusiastically backed Brexit, and was a member of the eurosceptic European Research Group of Conservative MPs. She has attacked Labour’s “softness on immigration” and harshly criticised trade unions.

In short, on most issues – Elphicke’s specialist interest of housing being a notable exception – she has been an energetic advocate of rightwing politics.

All this is not to mention the unusual circumstances of her election as MP for Dover. She succeeded her then-husband, Charlie, who had at that point been suspended over accusations of sexual assault. She stood by him, including after he had been convicted.

The Labour leadership had anticipated some unease over its decision to lay out the welcome mat for Elphicke. Sources briefed from early on that she would not be fighting her seat at the next election, nor would she be offered a peerage or a job – though she might be invited to advise “informally” on housing policy.

The most negative reaction, of course, was from the left. For journalist Owen Jones, Elphicke’s admittance illustrated how “Starmerism” had become “a political project devoid of principle or, indeed, a soul”. Comparisons have been drawn with the fate of the leftwing MP Diane Abbott, left waiting in suspension over accusations of antisemitism for more than a year without knowing when she can expect a decision about her future to be made.

But concern extended well beyond the usual suspects. The Guardian reported that Starmer’s embrace of Elphicke had been met “with bafflement and consternation from his MPs, including some in the shadow cabinet and on the frontbench”. Former party leader Neil Kinnock pointed out that even a broad church still needs walls.

What they were thinking

As New Labour’s Alastair Campbell has revealed on his podcast The Rest Is Politics, potential defectors are carefully nurtured over a period of time and all the ramifications are thought through. There is nothing spontaneous about the process. Hence, the reasoning behind the decision to admit Elphicke affords us a glimpse of the mindset of the Starmer leadership.

The defection was plainly seen as a major embarrassment for Rishi Sunak. That Elphicke was a Tory rightwinger was not a hindrance but a bonus. None other than the hardline MP for Dover, the best-known point of arrival for asylum seekers crossing the English Channel, was berating Sunak for failing to protect the nation’s borders.

In a statement doubtless carefully crafted with Labour’s help, Elphicke emphasised how much Labour “had moved on from Jeremy Corbyn and now, under Keir Starmer, occupies the centre ground of British politics”. This has been Starmer’s central message since his election – his party has been utterly transformed.

Leftwingers might query how Elphicke but not Abbott can be a fit-and-proper person to be a Labour MP, but was this not precisely the point – that the party is no longer for erstwhile Corbynites, but instead for disaffected Tory voters?

This is essential to understanding the leadership’s view that Elphicke’s arrival is a coup. It had wrong-footed and outmanoeuvred the Tories. It had demonstrated that Labour is now led by hard-bitten and tough-minded realists, unwilling to allow those with tender consciences to hamper the march to victory.

As one shadow cabinet member reportedly commented: “We’ve got an election to win. The name of the game is beating the Tories. When an opportunity like this comes along, you can’t pass it up.”

But how much of an impression will this really make on the voters, many of whom struggle to name more than a handful of politicians at the best of times?

Labour’s leadership might reply that what matters most about the whole episode is what it conveys and symbolises – that Labour is serious about winning and, to achieve that, will do what it takes.

The question is: do voters need to be convinced of this? They may accept that Labour is now willing to tailor its principles to the pursuit of power, but are they reassured by this direction of travel?

A more pressing problem is arguably that so many voters see politicians (including Starmer) as “in it for themselves”, cherishing power and its perquisites above all else. Never to be trusted to stand by their principles, all too ready to blow with the wind.

Elphicke’s defection may be exciting, enthralling even, to Westminster insiders. But there’s a very real risk that Starmer is merely feeding into the perception that politics is all a bit of a game for those insiders, with voters merely the spectators.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Eric Shaw is a member of the Labour party.