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Natalie Elphicke row deepens

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Was Keir Starmer’s decision to welcome the Tory right wing MP Natalie Elphicke to the Labour party a genius strategic move by a ruthless leader ready for power or an unforced error? The calculation in the Leader’s Office was that the opportunity to have an MP in a key seat on small boats (Elphicke represents Dover) back Starmer was too good to pass up. Given Labour have often been attacked for being soft on immigration, having the right wing Elphicke cross the floor and say Starmer has the best policy is a strong message for wavering voters. Starmer wasted no time in trying to capitalise on this endorsement with a speech on Friday in Dover on his plans to tackle the small boat crossings.

Part of the calculation was that the furore over Elphicke’s past criticisms of Labour and her defence of her now ex-husband (and former Tory MP) Charlie Elphicke after he was charged with sexual assault would quickly die down. That is being tested this weekend with the Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Times both splashing on claims that Elphicke’s defence of her former husband extended to asking the then Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland for ‘favour over husband’s trial’.

The two papers report claims from Buckland and some anonymous Tory sources that Elphicke arranged a meeting on false pretences to argue that ‘she felt it was unfair that his case was the first to be heard at Southwark crown court after lockdown’ and that it was being ‘overseen by Lady Justice Whipple, who, as presiding judge of the southeastern circuit, was one of the most senior judges in the land’. The comments were interpreted by one figure in the room as an attempt to have the case moved to a lower profile court or to replace Whipple.

Privately many Labour MPs are still perplexed by the decision to welcome Elphicke

A Labour spokesperson has defended Elphicke over the allegations, saying the new Labour MP ‘totally rejects that characterisation of the meeting’. They make the point that Buckland could have raised concerns at the meeting any time in the past couple of years if he was so worried, rather than waiting until Elphicke had joined the Labour party. Now this is of course a valid point, the timing of Buckland’s memory prompt is clearly helpful to the Tory party as it tries to cause Labour problems over the defection fallout. But whatever Buckland’s intentions, it doesn’t take away from the point that his comments mean the Elphicke row is not about to die down.

They are particularly problematic because despite Starmer’s warm welcome for Elphicke on the day her move was announced, the Labour party has already had to put out a statement addressing criticism of her prior support for her former husband who was found guilty of sexually assaulting two women in 2020. She previously claimed he was ‘an easy target’ for false allegations. In the statement she said she condemns his behaviour towards other women and to herself.

These latest allegations will, however, add to the concerns of several female Labour MPs who have concerns over Elphicke’s defection. Privately many Labour MPs are still perplexed by the decision to welcome Elphicke, with questions also over her policy positions which seem to be at odds with many Labour ones.

When a party is over twenty points ahead in the polls (according to the latest YouGov poll Labour’s lead is actually 30 points), a party leader can get away with a lot when it comes to forcing the parliamentary party to accept positions. But as recent Tory leaders have discovered, using up the goodwill of colleagues tends to cause problems later down the line when the political weather is less rosy.

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