Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Elphicke defection baffles Tories at PMQs

Credit: Parliament TV

If Natalie Elphicke’s defection had much of an effect on the mood of Tory MPs at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, it was largely to leave them looking a bit baffled. Their former colleague was not a clear candidate to cross the floor to Labour. Labour MPs looked a bit confused too, in fairness, having previously seen Elphicke as a bit of an oddball of a very different political persuasion to theirs. She has said she will stand down at the next election, so her new party won’t have to spend much time pretending to be nice to her (defectors are often rather lonely figures at the best of times).

Keir Starmer used his newest MP as the theme for his questions: Elphicke, who is MP for Dover, had complained that she couldn’t trust Rishi Sunak to stop the boats, and so Starmer repeated that line at the Prime Minister.

If one week a Tory MP who is also a doctor says the Prime Minister can’t 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 the Prime Minister can’t be trusted with our borders and joins Labour – what is the point of this failed government staggering on?

Sunak ignored the mention of Elphicke, who was sitting behind Starmer, and went on to talk about the local election results, including paying tribute to ‘great leaders like Andy Street who leave behind a strong legacy of more jobs and more investment, in sharp contrast to the legacy left by the last Labour government’, which was a letter which was joking that there was no money left.

This allowed Starmer to read out the numbers from those local elections, pointing out that ‘the Prime Minister has been on the receiving end of some of the biggest by-election swings in history’ and had ‘also lost 1500 Tory councillors, half of his mayors, and a leadership election to a lettuce’. How many more times, he asked, ‘do the public and his own MPs need to reject him before he takes the hint?’ Sunak’s riposte was to quote Tony Blair saying that Starmer could be as ‘cocky’ as he liked about local elections, but ‘come a general election, it’s policy that counts’. Blair is right – though Sunak could probably do with applying that wisdom to his own pitch.

Starmer then had a dig at Sunak’s personal wealth, listing the ‘many places that he calls home’ where Labour now ran local government either through councils or mayoralties. ‘Now that he can cheerfully enjoy the benefits of this changed Labour party, is he really still in such a hurry to get back to California?’ This is a rally the pair have played so many times that they could both execute it blindfold. Sunak volleyed back, joking that he was surprised to see Starmer in North Yorkshire, although ‘probably not as surprised as he was when he realised he couldn’t take the tube back!’

The niceties continued, with Starmer accusing Sunak of being a ‘dodgy salesman desperate to sell them a dud’, before returning to the small boats crisis, almost as though he had just remembered what he was supposed to be asking the Prime Minister about before he got sidetracked by their regular grudge match. But Sunak wasn’t keen to get back to policy, saying ‘just this morning we’ve learned that the Labour Mayor in London believes – and I quote – that there is an equivalence between the brutal terrorist attacks of Hamas and Israel defending itself’. 

Sunak wasn’t keen to get back to policy

Starmer decided to leave Sadiq Khan’s comments well alone, and listed the number of small boats arrivals over the past 16 days: 2,400. He then said the asylum application backlog was forecast to rise to 100,000 by the end of the year, adding: ‘But Rwanda can only take a few hundred a year. At that rate, the Prime Minister’s grand plan would take over 300 years to remove them all’. This was a misrepresentation of the point of the Rwanda policy, which is to act as a deterrent. Oddly, Sunak didn’t make that point until after his exchanges with Starmer, when Tory backbencher Sir Edward Leigh stood up to ask a question about small boats. It was almost as though the Prime Minister had forgotten the point of the Safety of Rwanda Bill too.

The SNP’s Stephen Flynn used his two questions to ask whether the UK would suspend arms exports to Israel, given the incursion into Rafah. Sunak was able to say in his first answer that the government was ‘deeply concerned’ about a military incursion and that he had made this point to Benjamin Netanyahu too. In his second answer, he said: ‘We periodically review advice on Israel’s commitment to international humanitarian law and ministers always act in accordance with that advice. And that is crystal clear for the House to understand. Our position with regard to export licences following the most recent assessment is unchanged’. As I reported yesterday, though, the mood of the Commons is shifting significantly now with the prospect of an attack on Rafah. The Prime Minister may well have to change his language, if not his position, very soon.

Isabel Hardman
Written by
Isabel Hardman
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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