Tory MP Natalie Elphicke defects to Labour as Rishi Sunak ambushed at PMQs

Rishi Sunak was rocked by another day of drama in parliament as Tory MP Natalie Elphicke ambushed him at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions by crossing the floor to Labour.

The shock move by a previously hard-right Conservative was kept secret to the last second by Sir Keir Starmer’s inner circle, but left MPs on both sides of the House stunned.

Ms Elphicke’s decision came on a day when the prime minister had hoped to re-galvanise his party back into a fighting machine with the first of two briefings on the local elections.

But with scores of Tory MPs boycotting the event, it emerged later that a group is in discussions to get the 52 letters needed to trigger a vote of confidence in Mr Sunak. Plotters are understood to have set a deadline of Wednesday next week (15 May) to get the necessary letters in.

The prime minister and senior party figures avoided any direct mention of Ms Elphicke at the No 10 briefing, but her defection to Labour also left many in opposition questioning why Sir Keir had accepted her.

Natalie Elphicke’s defection to Labour left many of her new colleagues on the opposition benches asking questions (Parliament TV)
Natalie Elphicke’s defection to Labour left many of her new colleagues on the opposition benches asking questions (Parliament TV)

In a damning indictment of Mr Sunak’s government, Ms Elphicke said: “Under Rishi Sunak, the Conservatives have become a byword for incompetence and division. The centre ground has been abandoned and key pledges of the 2019 manifesto have been ditched.”

While many Tory MPs mocked her defection by pulling out the Dover MP’s past tweets and articles attacking Labour over immigration and referring to a “coalition of chaos” with the SNP and Lib Dems, as well as those in which she aimed her fire at trade unions, the mood was more sombre at the briefing with the prime minister.

The Independent understands that Mr Sunak remained smiling and “upbeat” throughout the hour-long session, in which he, election strategist Isaac Levido and party chair Richard Holden addressed around 60 Tory MPs. Pointedly, none of them mentioned Ms Elphicke, and they instead focused on polling in a bid to make the case that the party can still win.

Mr Sunak told them that the local election results were “disappointing... but all to play for”.

One MP noted: “I think it was more about bringing people together and trying to calm nerves.” Critics of the prime minister either stayed away or remained silent, they said, with only “lick asses” standing up to say “Rishi is doing a wonderful job”.

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke was previously seen as very right-wing (PA Archive)
Dover MP Natalie Elphicke was previously seen as very right-wing (PA Archive)

But a number of MPs who did not attend made their feelings clear, with one describing the event as “a waste of time”, adding: “The national message doesn’t work. To win: go local!”

A red-wall MP accused the party under Sunak of “disengaging with the working classes” and stated that they would “definitely not go”. One despondent MP said: “What’s the point? We have lost anyway.”

The prime minister’s painful predicament was ruthlessly mocked by Sir Keir at the start of PMQs as Ms Elphicke went to sit behind the opposition leader in the packed back benches.

The triumphant Labour leader, who already had a new MP from the Blackpool South by-election joining his ranks, said: “May I also warmly welcome the new Labour MP, the member for Dover, to these benches?”

Pointing out that she followed Suffolk MP Dr Dan Poulter, who defected to Labour 11 days ago, Sir Keir said: “If one week a Tory MP who is also a doctor says that the prime minister cannot be trusted with the NHS and joins Labour, and the next week the Tory MP for Dover – on the front line of the small boats crisis – says that the prime minister ‘cannot be trusted’ with our borders and joins Labour, what is the point of this failed government staggering on?”

But while Tory MPs questioned why their “most right-wing” colleague had been welcomed into the Labour Party, there was also a backlash from Sir Keir’s own MPs and activists.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak was under fire at PMQs (PA Wire)
Prime minister Rishi Sunak was under fire at PMQs (PA Wire)

Jenny Symmons, a Labour staffer who is also the chair of the GMB branch for members’ staff, has asked for a meeting with the chief whip about the vetting of those who wish to become Labour MPs.

Reflecting the anguish of many Labour activists who had posted on social media, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell called Ms Elphicke’s defection a “stunt” that he said reveals “Labour values at the moment”.

He told LBC that the move “damages the Tories, there’s no doubt about that, but it also has implications for the Labour Party as well”, adding: “I’m a great believer in the powers of conversion, but I think this one would have strained the generosity of spirit of John the Baptist, quite honestly.”

He went on: “This is a useful political stunt, maybe in the short term, but in the longer term it does say something about Labour values at the moment. That’s why I think restoring the whip to Diane [Abbott] and to Jeremy if it’s possible – I think it would rebalance things.”

Canterbury Labour MP Rosie Duffield, who has been snubbed by Sir Keir over her views on the trans debate, tweeted: “Well, at least one woman from Kent got a meeting!”

Later in the day, Sir Keir also allowed MP Kate Osamor to rejoin the party after a three-month suspension over a controversial tweet about the Holocaust.