Why Andrew Bridgen’s defection is different

Andrew Bridgen has officially joined the Reclaim party mere weeks after it was revealed he had been permanently expelled from the Conservative party for a tweet which invoked the Holocaust to channel his criticism of covid vaccines. 

It makes Bridgen the Reclaim party’s first member of parliament and the latest MP in recent years to “cross the floor”. “This is just the beginning”, Bridgen explained at a press conference on Wednesday morning. 

Bridgen’s unveiling is by some way the most attention Reclaim has garnered since its establishment in 2020 — and it therefore presented the perfect opportunity for the party to set out its stall. 

Speaking at the party’s press conference, leader and actor-turned-anti-vax-activist Laurence Fox began by celebrating “Britain’s national story” and its “renewal” at King Charles III’s coronation. He took aim at fellow thespian Adjoa Andoh who criticised the lack of diversity on display during the royal family’s balcony appearance: “‘Terribly white’, Fox said, “what a terrible thing to say”. 

The culture war tropes came thick and fast. Fox followed up with: “This is not a racist country”, pivoting quickly to the cases of “confused and depressed teenagers steered towards gender reassignment”. He declared moreover that “our fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and process are being banned”; and attacked “crippling and failed lockdowns”, before decrying that those “who raised legitimate concerns about covid vaccines are cancelled”.

It’s this latter point that appears to be Reclaim’s main raison d’être. Indeed, turning to his new MP in Bridgen, Fox stated: “because he broke the silence surrounding serious harms even death occurring as a result of the MRNA jabs, Andrew was branded an anti-vaxxer, a conspiracy theorist and, yes, you guessed it, a racist”. 

But Fox wanted to make a broader point. He accused the Conservatives of having “sold out to Lib Demery” and appealed to “disillusioned Tories in North West Leicestershire [and] disappointed Brexit voters who want to see their Leave vote put into practice” to put their faith in Bridgen. 

Bridgen’s defection here was hence sold as something significant — an important moment in political history when the tides of the culture war began to turn in Fox’s favour. But all signs indicate that the move will be a mere ripple. Indeed, despite Bridgen’s fierce bobbing at prime minister’s questions, watched on by patron Fox in the gallery, Reclaim was forced to wait for their parliamentary debut.

Of course, defections are not new to British politics and we have seen many in recent years.

Probably the most notable came in 2014 when Douglas Carswell left the Conservative Party for UKIP, standing in a subsequent by-election and returned under his new affiliation. Carswell’s defection was followed quickly by fellow MP Mark Reckless and — with Britain slowly dividing into pro-EU and eurosceptic camps — the episode felt politically potent. Carswell has since said he “jumped ship with the express goal of changing the image of UKIP and ensuring that it was an asset rather than a liability in the referendum campaign”. 

But unlike Carswell, Bridgen was pushed from the Conservative Party before he jumped to Reclaim. And UKIP in 2014, at the height of its influence, dwarfs the political clout of Fox’s party right now. 

Moreover, despite Bridgen’s protestations, there will be no Reckless who follows him into the wilderness nor any forthcoming political development which the party might contribute to and feed off. His announcement that he will be suing fellow ex-Conservative MP Matt Hancock is unlikely to elicit a mass outpouring of public support. 

Bridgen has also already confirmed that he will not be calling a by-election to test the strength of his constituency’s Reclaim convictions. Interestingly, the MP once rubbished “Anna Soubry and the rest of the ‘people’s vote’ [Change UK] defectors” for not calling by-elections because they know they would be “bye-bye elections”.

But beyond the circumstances of Bridgen’s defection, the broader problem for “culture war” parties like Reclaim is totemic. Their political and rhetorical strategy rests on the view that they are somehow the true voice of the silent majority, representing a pure conservative creed (Fox quoted Thatcher at the press conference as he slighted Sunakian “Lib Demery”). But they do so while failing to register in national polling. 

The Reform UK party — by some way a larger right-of-Conservative political party than Reclaim — won just six seats at the local elections, averaging 6% of the vote in the wards where it stood. As the restyled Brexit party, Reform is a more natural political receptacle than Reclaim for Sunak-sceptic voters and is currently honing its political pitch on small boats.

Reclaim on the other hand, in identifying its pet subject as Covid vaccines, has issued another loyalty test to those right-of-centre voters who disagree with the Conservative party’s present political direction. 

And with the residue of UKIP and the anti-woke and anti-migrant Social Democratic Party all competing for the same political territory, we are reminded of that totalising problem for right-of-Conservative politics today: too many parties and not enough voters.