UK Conservative lawmaker Dan Poulter defects to opposition Labour

(Reuters) -British member of parliament Dan Poulter has defected from the ruling Conservative Party to the opposition Labour Party, in a blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ahead of a set of local elections that could put further pressure on his leadership.

Sunak's Conservatives are trailing Labour by around 20 points in opinion polls ahead of a national election expected this year, and the timing of the defection appeared designed to damage the government further ahead of Thursday's local votes.

Poulter said the government's record on the state-run National Health Service (NHS) - one of Sunak's five priorities for the country - meant he could no longer represent the Conservatives.

"It is abundantly clear to me that the Labour party alone has the will and the trust to restore and reform the NHS. That's why we need a Labour government," Poulter said in an article in the Observer newspaper, adding he would stand down at the coming election.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said it was "fantastic" to welcome Poulter to the party.

"Across the country more and more people are switching to Labour because they know only this changed Labour Party can deliver the change Britain needs," he said in a statement.

Poulter is the second Conservative lawmaker to defect to Labour since the last election, after Christian Wakeford switched in 2022 over former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's conduct around rule-breaking parties during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Sunak has faced a tough time trying to recover Conservative fortunes after the premierships of Johnson and Liz Truss tanked the party's poll ratings, and has blamed strike action by doctors and other health workers for throwing his pledge to cut hospital waiting lists off track.

But Poulter said the government had put ideology ahead of pragmatism in dealing with the industrial disputes, leaving patients to bear the brunt.

A spokesperson for the Conservatives said Poulter's defection would be "disappointing news" for his constituents, adding the government had increased funding for the NHS.

"What Dan says is wrong as Sir Keir Starmer has no plan for our NHS," the spokesperson said.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Rishabh Jaiswal; Editing by Timothy Heritage and David Holmes)