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Has Keir Starmer shot himself in the foot with Elphicke’s defection?

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Keir Starmer sent shockwaves through British politics yesterday after he unveiled Natalie Elphicke as his newest Labour MP at PMQs. Naturally, the immediate commentary (including mine) focussed on Conservative reactions: the Parliament TV cameras caught Jonathan Gullis, a Tory deputy chairman, arms flailing and mouth agog; commons leader Penny Mordaunt immediately turned to chief whip Simon Hart for a brief discussion; and taking to the despatch box after Starmer’s initial question, Rishi Sunak seemed genuinely stumped.

But what of the reactions on the other side of the commons aisle — i.e among those Labour MPs who are now forced to share a party with a former European Research Group member? Rewatching PMQs today, many Labour parliamentarians look equally, if not more, shocked than their counterparts on the government benches. The Independents splash last night nicely captured the PLP’s apparent mood.

And if facial expressions weren’t enough, the hours after Elphicke’s defection were dogged by relentless critical briefing from Labour MPs. Backbenchers, as well as a few frontbenchers, took turns voicing their concerns anonymously to journalists. The sentiment was relatively uniform: Elphicke is just too controversial an MP for Labour to be welcoming.

Speaking this morning, Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds defended the move to accept Elphicke, insisting the ex-Tory is “a good, natural fit”. “People can change their minds and, as I said before, Natalie Elphicke is not the first Conservative MP to take this decision”, she added.

That may be true, but while Labour MPs largely welcomed the defection of Dr Dan Poulter over his NHS frustrations — or, before him, that of Christian Wakeford at the peak of “Partygate”, Elphicke’s record as a Tory right-winger sets herself apart.

There is also the lingering controversy over Elphicke’s role in defending her husband, Charlie, after he was convicted of sexual assault. Elphicke ultimately ended the marriage, but still supported her predecessor as the MP for Dover through his unsuccessful appeal. Elphicke told The Sun at the time that Charlie had been “attractive, and attracted to women” and “an easy target for dirty politics and false allegations”. (She has now apologised for these comments, as per our Lunchtime soundbite feature below).

Jess Phillips, who resigned as Labour’s spokesperson for domestic violence and safeguarding in November, said Elphicke should “account for her actions”. “I’m all for forgiveness but I do think that that needs some explaining”, Phillips told ITV’s Peston.

On that point, Dodds told Times Radio this morning: “There was accountability for Natalie Elphicke in the fact that there was a parliamentary process around this”, adding: “It’s quite right that there was a parliamentary process … and I believe that she has addressed this in parliament and in public and rightly so, because this is a very serious subject.”

However, despite Dodds’ protestations, it is already clear that many within Labour’s broad church — of all ideological hues — are unhappy with their latest convert. Curiously, former party leader Neil Kinnock, whose son is currently a frontbencher, appeared to join the backlash yesterday by advising Labour to be “choosy” when it comes to Tory turncoats.

The Conservatives, naturally, are also seeking to make the most of this Labour drama. Speaking in the commons this morning, Penny Mordaunt sought to punch the Labour bruise, joking that she is herself “too left wing” to defect to Labour. More here. Elsewhere today, foreign secretary Lord Cameron declared: “What does this tell us about the party [Elphicke is] joining? In life, if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything”.

The big question for Keir Starmer is whether the political gain flowing from Elphicke’s defection is worth the manifest political pain. As I pointed out this morning, this latest story befits a narrative of Conservative decay and decline — which has already been underpinned in recent days by the local elections and Poulter’s defection.

Indeed, the news today that former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi is standing downat the next election should also be viewed through this prism. BBC News decided that Zahawi’s announcement warranted a BBC app push notification; it followed the push notification after Elphicke’s defection yesterday — which happened to highlight her description of the government’s “broken promises”.

In short, Conservative decline remains the defining narrative in Westminster — and, if recent elections and polls are anything to go by, it is being bought into by the public at large. Elphicke’s defection, simply, features neatly within this broader political genre.

Speaking of political decay, my featured article today recounts the slow demise of the Conservatives’ 2019 majority — which once stood at 80 seats. Today, after a series of sleaze scandals, by-election routings and defections, Rishi Sunak’s majority stands at a relatively mere *38*.

Lunchtime briefing

Nadhim Zahawi to quit at next election as Conservative MP exodus climbs to 64

Ben Houchen says responsibility for Conservative Party’s position ‘lies with’ Rishi Sunak

Penny Mordaunt jokes she is ‘too left wing’ to join Labour after Elphicke defection

Lunchtime soundbite

‘I have previously, and do, condemn his behaviour towards other women and towards me. It was right that he was prosecuted and I’m sorry for the comments that I made about his victims’

—  New Labour MP Natalie Elphicke has now apologised for comments she made supporting her ex-husband after he was convicted of sexual assault.

Now try this…

Are Starmer and Reeves the heirs to Cameron and Osborne?
ConservativeHome’s William Atkinson writes.

Labour has already begun conversations with the next Tory MPs who could cross the floor
The Mirror’s John Stevens reports.

Inside No. 10’s battle of the pollsters
The Spectator’s Katy Balls has the inside track from Conservative political strategist Isaac Levido’s recent briefing to the cabinet. (Paywall)

On this day in 2022:

Starmer and Rayner vow to resign if issued Covid fines

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