Week-in-Review: Conservative defections reflect Keir Starmer’s ruthless pursuit of power

What is Keir Starmer’s defining characteristic politically? If you ask the wider public, according to the recent rise of polling-informed “word clouds”, the answer tends to be some shade of: he’s “boring”, “dull”, “bland”. And, no matter how high Labour’s polling lead climbs, Starmer cannot detach himself from a response that — for any other leader — would serve as a two-word political eulogy: “Don’t know”.

The Conservative response to Starmer’s death by a thousand adjectives is to conclude that Labour is winning in spite of their leader, not because of him. As long as voters populate Starmer’s word clouds with “Don’t knows” and “Not sures”, we shouldn’t rule out a Conservative recovery, this logic runs. 

At Westminster, this view of Starmer as “dull” reflects a broader discourse of uncertainty surrounding the Labour leader: with which intra-party faction does he best identify? What could this tell us about the ideological tenor of a Starmer government? 

But we are now approaching the point in the electoral cycle when to suggest you “don’t know” who Starmer is politically — for those who occupy Westminster at least — is to admit you haven’t been paying close enough attention. Having chalked up two Conservative defections in as many weeks, the Labour leader has once again displayed that his primary organising principle as a politician is his breathtaking ruthlessness.

For the Labour left, Starmer’s “ruthlessness” and plan to pursue power at the apparent expense of principle is his foremost vice. Scattered and demoralised, the Socialist Campaign Group’s membership owes its recent stay in the political wilderness to Starmer’s merciless machinations. Conservative infighting rumbled into a new phase this week, with rebels having resolved to let Rishi Sunak own the coming cataclysm. But don’t be fooled by the noise surrounding the conversion of Natalie Elphicke, Starmer’s internal fight is over.

Ultimately, to understand why this view of Starmer as “boring” or somehow inscrutable still shapes SW1 discourse, one must return to the circumstances in which he first emerged as Labour leader in 2020. Then, having vanquished his leadership rivals, the scale of Starmer’s struggle for power no less than defined Westminster’s perception of him. Facing a buccaneering Boris Johnson at the peak of his powers, Starmer was quickly written off as unworthy of the challenge ahead. Johnson conducted his politics through force of personality, through spectacle. In short, Labour’s attempts to cast Starmer as Johnson’s managerial foil may have set up a political windfall — but it did not excite contemporary observers. 

Parliamentary arithmetic, too, was said to define Starmer’s destiny. Johnson was not just shaping how we treat our politicians — but, in pursuing Brexit, Britain’s very electoral geography. Could Starmer thwart the shifting tectonic plates of UK politics in a single term? Few commentators spotted hints the Labour leader could succeed where so many of his predecessors had failed — certainly now the terms of the political battle had shifted so definitely in the Conservatives’ favour. 

Rishi Sunak’s disappearing majority: where have so many Conservative MPs gone?

In this sense, Starmer’s future became self-fulfilling. He was destined to lose and therefore irrelevant; and irrelevant and therefore destined to lose. Worse still for Starmer, this dynamic was playing out during a once-in-a-generation pandemic, when the to-and-fro of politics was suspended in favour of sombre consensus. Throughout Covid, the spotlight searched for Downing Street and Johnson, not Starmer’s lawyerly quibbling. At best, he was “forensic” — but ahead of the infamous Hartlepool by-election in 2021, Starmer proved unable to cross-examine his way through the Conservatives’ “vaccine bounce”.

Suffice it to say, the Labour leader was never afforded a forum in which to publicly define his mode of politics during this period. But through 2020-2022, Starmer found solace in his ability to govern and mould his party. By disempowering and dispossessing his left flank, the Labour leader exhibited a propensity for taking significant but calculated risks: a trait that has only strengthened as Starmer’s ruthless pursuit of power has progressed. 

Starmer goads Sunak after Conservative MP defects: ‘What is the point of this government?’

This is the prism, in the end, through which we should seek to understand Natalie Elphicke’s defection to the Labour Party this week — and the ruthless PMQs choreography which came with it. At 12 noon on Wednesday, most of the shadow cabinet — including Rachel Reeves and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper (whose brief Elphicke’s defection has clearly implicated) — remained non-the-wiser to Starmer’s designs. And, crucially, neither was Rishi Sunak. The PM was due a tough enough outing after his party’s local elections drubbing; and he could muster no meaningful comeback to a further defection and Starmer’s rolling reproofs.  

Indeed, viewed against the backdrop of the local elections, it is no secret that Elphicke’s defection adds further weight to the prevailing narrative of Conservative decay and decline. Elphicke is, of course, the second Tory turncoat in as many weeks — having followed Dr Dan Poulter to the welcome embrace of Starmer’s Labour Party.

Starmer vows to restore ‘integrity’ to asylum system with new Border Security Command

Last month, Starmer seized on Poulter’s defection to make a broader pitch to Conservative voters on mental health and the state of the NHS. On Friday, Elphicke served as the warm-up act to a significant speech from the Labour leader on illegal migration. The symbolism was plain: a Conservative MP at the forefront of the small boats crisis has defected to Labour just as the government is set to operationalise the Rwanda scheme. 

But more broadly, the drumbeat of defections and set-piece speeches would suggest that Starmer is not yet done drawing from Conservative ranks. 12 days separated Poulter and Elphicke’s defections — how long before British politics gains another born-again Starmerite?

On the surface, this is the Labour leader taking his mantra to “fight like we’re five points behind [in the polls]” extremely seriously. Defection after defection, by-election routing after by-election routing, Starmer intends to utterly enervate the Conservative Party — only to tussle with what remains across the despatch box after the next election.

To ask, then, whether Starmer underestimated the backlash in the Labour Party to Elphicke’s defection is to misunderstand his politics — or lack thereof. In Tom Baldwin’s biography of the Labour leader, Angela Rayner recently remarked of her boss: “Keir is the least political person I know”. It is, ultimately, Starmer’s lack of political loyalties or clear association with a party tradition (he has only been an MP since 2015) that empowers his ruthlessness. Today, Starmer’s politics is entirely ends-focussed; with electoral victory the Labour leader’s lone North Star. Intra-party concerns are, at best, an afterthought.

Indeed, commentators lampoon the Labour “big tent” for expanding beyond its reasonable limits after Elphicke’s entrance; but consider just how well that suits the apolitical Starmer, who has long sought to cultivate a wide appeal — even far into Conservative territory where Elphicke resides. 

As such, the clear subtext of Starmer’s speech on illegal migration on Friday was that he intends to turn his party into a vehicle for those who desire effective, stable governance. The wide ideological reach of the Starmer project is its very point.

Don’t doubt either that Starmer will soon turn on his defectors, and Elphicke in particular. With Starmer’s speech on illegal migration having garnered greater media attention than it might have otherwise, expect the former Tory to now be quietly sidelined — unless Starmer resolves she can be redeployed in his war on Conservative rule.

In the end, after the local elections and two Tory defections, the days that saw Starmer shrugged off a political irrelevancy seem more distant than ever.

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our free daily newsletter here.

Labour’s small boats strategy is the essence of ‘Starmerism’