Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Tory Dustbin

Labour’s newest MP has an astonishing record: defending convicted sex offenders and attacking everyone from refugees to Marcus Rashford. Natalie Elphicke’s defection doesn’t show her principles have changed, but how Labour has abandoned theirs.

Keir Starmer welcomes Natalie Elphicke's defection. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Meet Natalie Elphicke, Labour’s newest MP. She arrived in Parliament in 2019, having replaced her then-husband Charlie Elphicke after he was charged with sexual assault. On his conviction, she told the Sun he was being punished for being ‘charming, wealthy, charismatic and successful — attractive, and attracted to, women.’ Two years later, Elphicke had to apologise to footballer and free school meals campaigner Marcus Rashford after suggesting that his missed penalty in the Euro 2020 final showed he should’ve spent more time ‘perfecting his game’ than ‘playing politics’. The year after that, having been heckled at a protest against P&O’s sacking of 800 workers without warning, Elphicke stood up in Parliament and denounced the threat of ‘militant unionism’. 

Elphicke is preceded in recent Tory floor-crossings by two others, Dan Poulter and Christian Wakeford. Poulter claims he defected because, as a working consultant psychiatrist, he could no longer look his NHS colleagues in the eye. That’s despite the fact that as a Tory MP since 2010 he’s been complicit in the austerity that’s brought the service to its knees, and as a health minister in the Coalition government, helped to implement the 2012 Health and Social Care Act which opened the NHS up to private healthcare providers. Wakeford defected on the basis of then-PM Boris Johnson’s dishonesty during the Partygate scandal, despite having helped bring in Johnson — already a well-known public figure — as his north-west coordinator. Later, as a Tory MP, Wakeford faced protests outside his office after he abstained on an opposition day motion on free school meals, and reportedly called Labour a ‘bunch of cunts’ after abstaining on another opposing a planned cut to Universal Credit. 

Each of these defectors will have their own reason for crossing the floor, but one thing unites them: opportunism. Their crises of faith didn’t come when benefit claimants were being attacked and asylum seekers demonised, when ambulances were queuing for hours outside A&E departments, when private companies were being handed over huge sums for faulty Covid PPE, or when protest was being made effectively illegal. They came once it was clear the Tories won’t last another election. That makes it hard to read them as anything but efforts to shore up jobs either inside or outside Parliament, alongside some thin moral legitimacy. (Poulter and Elphicke both plan to stand down in 2024, but for their work outside Parliament and, in Poulter’s case, outside the NHS, it may not hurt to have the ear of their new colleagues when they start running the country.)

If I sound cynical, blame the political system that makes cynicism necessary. It doesn’t seem like fantasy to want a politics in which the individuals on the government and opposition benches are not simply interchangeable. Democracy depends on choice.

Characterised by the mainstream media as earthquakes, what these defections actually prove is the incredibly narrow parameters of political activity allowed in Britain today. The electorate is desperate for real solutions to the cost of living crisis, the unfolding environmental disaster, the wars igniting around us, and the collapse of the NHS, but anyone who threatens to offer them is decried by opponents and in the press unserious and unelectable, and voters encouraged to focus on the representatives of grown-up politics instead: austerity and imperialism with a blue tie, or austerity and imperialism with a red.

The recent trajectory of the Labour Party into which Elphicke, Poulter, and Wakeford are arriving is evidence of this limiting process in action. Recognising that the ruling class was losing its faith in a chaotic Tory Party to defend its interests effectively, Starmer has garnered its trust by proving his preparedness to change or simply jettison his values as required. Starmer suspended Corbyn after campaigning for him to be prime minister and then reneged on a deal to readmit him to the party; Starmer abandoned his own pledges upon winning the leadership and has U-turned on every vaguely progressive policy proposal since. The only consistent principle has been hostility to the Left: that’s how you end up with a situation in which those who have spent five or ten years denouncing everything Labour says or does can be welcomed, but socialists like Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn — not to mention all those leftists blocked from standing as Labour candidates for infractions as small as liking a Carole Lucas tweet — must remain in the cold.

To be clear: I’m all in favour of genuinely changing your mind. I believe that you can hold onto fundamental principles, like in the sanctity of human life and the wrongness of exploitation, while shifting your opinion about the best way to put them into action. You can — and should — have your mind changed by good arguments, and be capable of changing others’ in turn. But welcoming the Tory right into his party, Keir Starmer is not demonstrating Labour’s ability to change people’s opinions. He’s only emphasising the fact that it has none.