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PMQs verdict: Starmer revels in Sunak’s humiliation as another MP defects

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Another Conservative MP has defected to Labour. At noon on the dot — the start time of prime minister’s questions note — a Labour Party press release informed journalists that Natalie Elphicke, formerly the Conservative MP for Dover, had crossed the floor. More here.

No doubt, the bombshell release was timed for maximum political impact. As I argued yesterday, Labour wants to allow the PM no reprieve after his local elections drubbing.

It means Elphicke is now the second Conservative MP in ten days to defect to the Labour Party; in fact, it was just last week at PMQs that Keir Starmer was tasked with welcoming Dr Dan Poulter to his amassing parliamentary ranks. It begs the question: with Conservatives’ 2019 majority of 80 having been whittled down (via defections and by-election routings) to 38, just how many more Tories could flee what is now widely regarded as a sinking ship?

Huffington Post ran a story over the weekend which suggested two further Conservatives could follow Poulter to the Labour benches. Elphicke has identified herself as the first, who might be next? Tune in next Wednesday at 12 noon to (maybe) find out.

But before we get to today’s PMQs drama, Elphicke’s defection is worth treating in some detail; for it, perhaps more than Poulter’s, is sending shockwaves through the parliamentary Conservative Party. As the MP for Dover, Elphicke has found herself on the political frontline of the “small boats” debate, frequently chastising Labour for what she once regarded as its feeble approach. Take this Daily Express op-ed from April 2023, entitled: “Don’t trust Labour on immigration they really want open borders”.

That Elphicke is generally regarded as on the right of the Conservative Party would explain the bewildered faces on the Tory benches as they clocked, one by one, her desertion. As for Elphicke’s reasoning, the new Labour MP argued in a statement that “many things have changed” since she entered parliament at the 2019 election, and now “the modern Labour Party looks to the future”.

Elphicke’s statement goes on to describe Rishi Sunak as “unelected”, adding: “We need to move on from the broken promises of [the PM’s] tired and chaotic Government”.

Read the statement in full here.

Unsurprisingly then, Starmer revelled in the news of Elphicke’s defection at PMQs. Beaming, the Labour leader “warmly” welcomed his latest tranche of new MPs: there was Elphicke, of course; but behind Starmer sat also Chris Webb, the new Labour MP for Blackpool South.

Starmer seized on Elphicke’s defection and the PM’s drubbing at the local elections to paint a familiar picture of Conservative decay and decline. “How many more times do the public and his own MPs need to reject him before he takes the hint?”, he asked pointedly of the prime minister.

A helpless Rishi Sunak could only thank the councillors who lost their jobs last week for their service, alongside Andy Street, the former Conservative mayor in the West Midlands.

Of course, after this latest set of difficult local elections for the Conservatives, a strong showing at PMQs from Sunak might have boosted, if only slightly, party morale. But after Elphicke’s defection, Sunak was simply cornered in the commons this afternoon.

And so, question after question, Starmer gleefully rolled through his favourite talking points, arriving eventually at the government’s flagship Rwanda deportation scheme: “They know there’s nothing behind the… gimmicks, the smug smile. He’s a dodgy salesman, desperate to sell them a dud”, the Labour leader declared.

The line prompted no intervention from the speaker, whose predecessors have taken exception to such “unparliamentary language”. Ex-Labour MP Dennis Skinner was memorably chucked out of parliament for calling David Cameron, the then-PM, “Dodgy Dave”.

In sum, Starmer’s “dodgy salesman” attack was typical of a feisty performance from the Labour leader. Taking to his feet for his sixth and final question, he asked: “If he thinks his own MPs joining the Labour Party are wrong, if he thinks anyone believes any of the nonsense that he spouts, why doesn’t he put it to the test and call a general election?”

Ignoring the question, the prime minister accused Starmer of having “out of touch values”, adding: “He snipes from the sidelines, [while] the Conservatives are building a better future”.

As Sunak returned to his seat on the government frontbench, the Tory cheers were muted at best. Rarely has the dichotomy of moods between the two main parties in parliament been so stark.

Lunchtime briefing

‘Rishi Sunak’s government is failing’ — Natalie Elphicke joins the Labour Party

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Conservative Party has ‘no vision’

Lunchtime soundbite

‘It has accepted Brexit and its economic policies and defence policies are responsible and can be trusted’

—  Labour MP Natalie Elphicke writes of her new party. More from Elphicke’s statement here.

Now try this…

UK Tories powerless to escape Rishi Sunak’s death march
Politico’s Esther Webber notes that Conservative MPs have backed down from challenging the PM.

The Tory doomscroll
The New Statesman’s Rachel Cunliffe writes that, dismayed by the local elections, Conservatives fear the party faces not only electoral defeat but a crisis of identity. (Paywall)

Michael Gove invokes Kate Moss in warning against hardline policies
The Times’ Steven Swinford has the inside track from Tuesday’s cabinet meeting . (Paywall)

On this day in 2023:

Do the Conservatives need to start considering the unthinkable on Brexit?

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