Starmer faces calls for Elphicke probe and criticism over her anti-strike views

Sir Keir Starmer is under fresh pressure over Natalie Elphicke’s defection to Labour, amid criticism of the ex-Tory MP’s anti-strike stance and calls for a probe into claims she lobbied a minister to interfere in her then-husband’s sex offences trial.

The president of the Trades Union Congress has reportedly described Labour’s decision to welcome Ms Elphicke as “alarming” because of her vocal support for the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, which curbs the effect that industrial action can have on some key services.

Matt Wrack, who is also the general secretary of Fire Brigades Union, denounced comments she made in March blaming firefighters for the deaths of three people during a past national strike.

“This is a disgraceful attack on firefighters, who protect the public and save lives every day, sometimes at great personal cost,” he wrote in a letter to the Labour leader seen by the Guardian.

“Attacking trade union members in this way to justify support for draconian anti-worker laws ought to be incompatible with membership of the parliamentary Labour party.”

Sir Keir, who is meeting Labour regional mayors on Monday, could face further questions over his political judgment in welcoming right-wing politicians into his party.

Meanwhile, a Labour MP said there should be an independent investigation into allegations Ms Elphicke in 2020 asked then-justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland to intervene in her then-husband Charlie Elphicke’s case.

Labour has said Ms Elphicke “totally rejects that characterisation of the meeting”.

Sir Robert Buckland
Tory former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland (Liam McBurney/PA)

Former shadow minister for tackling domestic violence Jess Phillips told LBC: “I think questions have to be answered now. I don’t know how one would prove if two people are saying two different things, it’s not my wheelhouse, it’s not my pay grade, there are questions to be answered, there are apologies to be made and there is work to do and I maintain that position.”

Health minister Maria Caulfield also said there should be an investigation into Sir Robert’s claims, but added it was up to the Labour Party to carry one out.

Senior Labour figures have been forced to defend their new colleague.

Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds questioned why Conservatives calling for a probe did not do so when Ms Elphicke was said to have approached Sir Robert.

Ms Dodds told the BBC’s Westminster Hour: “Natalie Elphicke has said … that these allegations are not true.

“And I think if the Conservative Party now says that it wishes to launch an investigation, the big question is for the Conservatives, because they maintain that this took place four years ago, there was no investigation, nothing done about it when she was a Conservative MP.

“I think many people will be scratching their heads and saying ‘if this is the serious matter that they state it is, why did they not act on this four years ago?’”

Shadow education minister Catherine McKinnell told Sky News on Monday she was “baffled” as to why Sir Robert had “sat on” the allegations and said his reasons for doing so should be “looked into”.

Charlie Elphicke court case
Natalie Elphicke defended her husband after the allegations emerged and accompanied him to Southwark Crown Court throughout the trial (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Tory former minister Sir Conor Burns told the same programme: “I don’t believe that Robert Buckland spoke about this formally at the time, I don’t know.

“But if he had done, there should have been an inquiry.”

Ms Elphicke shocked Westminster on Wednesday when she quit the Conservatives for Labour, hitting out at Rishi Sunak’s “tired and chaotic government”.

Her move prompted a backlash among some Labour MPs, who raised concerns about the decision to admit her to the party, citing her political opinions and comments about her ex-husband’s case.

Labour MP for Coventry South Zarah Sultana told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme: “She is a former paid-up member of the ERG (European Research Group), she voted for Liz Truss in the leadership, she’s at odds when it comes to fire-and-rehire, has attacked trade unions and their activity’s not great on the environment either.

“So unless she’s had the biggest Damascene conversion ever, I just don’t buy it.”

Ms Elphicke’s former husband, her predecessor as Dover MP, was convicted of sexually assaulting two women and jailed for two years in 2020.

She ended the marriage after his conviction but supported his unsuccessful appeal, saying Mr Elphicke had been “attractive, and attracted to women” and “an easy target for dirty politics and false allegations”.

Ms Elphicke was forced to apologise for the comments backing her ex-husband following criticism from her new party colleagues.

Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron branded her defection as “naked opportunism, by Labour as much as anything”.