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Tory MP Natalie Elphicke defects to Labour in fresh blow to Rishi Sunak

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Rishi Sunak’s hopes of reviving Tory spirits were dealt a blow on Wednesday after Natalie Elphicke became the second Conservative MP in as many weeks to defect to the Labour party.

The move also triggered furious questions about Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s judgment from his own MPs, on account of Elphicke’s past political views, her suspension from parliament and criticism of her conduct by a senior judge.

The MP for Dover crossed the floor in the House of Commons moments before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions, saying she had defected because of “broken promises” from Sunak’s “tired and chaotic government”.

Elphicke’s dramatic defection undercut Sunak’s attempts to rally Tory MPs reeling from the party’s dismal local election results with a briefing on the general election national campaign in Downing Street later in the day.

She became MP for Dover in December 2019, replacing her then husband Charlie Elphicke, who had stood down after being charged with sexual assault.

In July 2020, he was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault against two women. That year, Natalie Elphicke was criticised by the office of the lord chief justice of England and Wales for an “improper” attempt to influence a judge hearing the trial of her then husband.

In 2021, Elphicke was among a trio of MPs handed a one-day suspension from parliament by the Commons standards committee in relation to their attempts to influence the judge.

After her then husband’s conviction, she told The Sun newspaper that he was “attractive and attracted to women”, which had made him an “easy target for dirty politics and false allegations”.

Elphicke’s defection, which came out of the blue and less than two weeks after Conservative MP Dan Poulter said he was joining Labour, was welcomed by Starmer. He said it was evidence “the Tory party has changed, it’s left the centre ground”.

But her move infuriated some MPs inside the main opposition party, given that she was on the right of the Conservative party on some issues and has strongly criticised Labour in the past.

Last year she called Starmer “Sir Softie” in an article for the Daily Express and accused his party of having “no plan to tackle illegal immigration” and wanting “open borders”.

John McDonnell, former shadow chancellor, was sceptical about her move: “I am a great believer in the powers of conversion but this one would strain the generosity of spirit of John the Baptist.”

Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock told the BBC the party must be “choosy” about who it let in, adding: “It’s a very broad church, but churches have walls and there’s a limit.”

One senior Labour figure was more outspoken, saying: “Most of us just think: ‘What the hell?’ There are some defections you should pass on . . . People are asking: ‘Aren’t we going a bit far with all of this?’”

Another Labour MP said: “I’m concerned. It’s a question of values. Are we trying to get the Tories out, or get the Tories in?”

Female Labour MPs were particularly upset about Elphicke’s past support for her ex-husband following his conviction and, according to Politico, one made a formal complaint to the chief whip. Earlier in the day a Labour spokesperson said the defecting MP had “spoken extensively about that case” and that the party had nothing to add.

Elphicke, who has a majority of 12,278 in Dover, will step down at the general election and not replace Labour’s existing candidate, Mike Tapp.

Labour insiders questioned whether party bosses had done a deal with Elphicke, who cited Sunak’s record on “housing and the safety and security of our borders” as the crucial factors behind her decision.

A Labour spokesperson confirmed Elphicke, a former chief executive of the Housing & Finance Institute, an industry group, would provide informal consultancy on housing, but insisted it was not a paid or formal role. She publicly confirmed she had not been offered a peerage.

Elphicke’s decision also angered Tory MPs. Transport minister Huw Merriman told the BBC he was “absolutely staggered” by her “shameless” defection, accusing her of being an opportunist with a “lack of scruples”.

Stephen Manion, a Conservative member of Dover District Council, said he was “sickened” by her move and called it a “kick in the guts”.

While left-wing Labour MPs were among those angered by Elphicke’s arrival, they were boosted by the party’s decision to restore the whip to colleague Kate Osamor after a probe into a social media post she made.

The MP for Edmonton in London was suspended in January after appearing to suggest on social media on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day that the conflict in Gaza should be remembered as a genocide.

Osamor later apologised for the message. A Labour spokesperson confirmed on Wednesday the whip had been restored following a “full investigation” into a complaint about the post.

Labour insiders dismissed suggestions that Osamor having the whip reinstated was timed to diffuse left-wing dismay about Elphicke’s defection. “No correlation,” said one.

In her resignation statement Elphicke, a former supporter of Boris Johnson, hit out at Sunak’s role in the “coup” that pushed Johnson out of Downing Street two years ago and cast herself as a centrist.

Sunak’s spokesperson said Elphicke would “have to explain to her constituents” why her stance on Labour’s migration policy had changed, noting that her X profile was a “treasure trove” of criticism of the opposition party’s plans to tackle small boat Channel crossings.

Video: Sketchy Politics: can anything save Sunak?

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