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Tory MP Elphicke defects to Labour in fresh blow to Sunak

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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s hopes of reviving flagging 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.

In a dramatic move Elphicke, MP for Dover, crossed the floor in the House of Commons moments before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions.

She lashed out at the “broken promises of Rishi Sunak’s tired and chaotic government” and cited his record on “housing and the safety and security of our borders” as the key factors behind her decision.

The move, which came out of the blue, was welcomed by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer as evidence “the Tory party has changed, it’s left the centre ground”. But it angered some leftwingers inside the main opposition party, given that Elphicke was on the right of the Conservative party on some issues including immigration.

Her defection came less than two weeks after Dan Poulter, Tory MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, said he was joining Labour because he could not look NHS colleagues and patients “in the eye with good conscience”.

It also came hours before Sunak and his strategy guru Isaac Levido were set to brief Conservative MPs in Downing Street on the general election national campaign, with another session set to take place next week.

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.

Natalie Elphicke 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.

Accusing the Tories of abandoning the centre ground of British politics, she said on Wednesday: “The modern Labour party looks to the future — to building a Britain of hope, optimism, opportunity and fairness.”

Elphicke also said Sunak’s government had failed to build enough homes, with last year seeing “the largest fall of new housing starts in England in a single year since the credit crunch”. She is expected to take up an unpaid role advising Labour on housing, an area in which she worked before entering parliament.

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. 

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 boats.

Ahead of the Number 10 briefing, one minister warned that MPs were likely to give Sunak and Levido harsh feedback about the government’s direction following disastrous local election results, and pose questions about what eye-catching measures would be rolled out before voters next went to the polls.

“Morale is poor and the local election results were even worse, but we have to keep pushing on,” the minister said, adding that they wanted to know what Sunak had “in the locker” in the lead-up to the general election.

The Downing Street briefings start a day after Tory chair Richard Holden and staff at Conservative Campaign Headquarters launched a series of regional briefings for Conservative MPs, offering more granular advice on local messaging and leaflets.

Despair was felt across the governing party after it lost about half of the council seats it was defending last week, the Blackpool South by-election and mayoral contests including the West Midlands.

Sunak’s suggestion over the bank holiday weekend that Britain was heading for a hung parliament at the general election further angered senior Tories.

His claim was based on an analysis of the local election results by Professor Michael Thrasher, which suggested the main opposition Labour party would be the largest party but fall short of an overall majority.

Other pollsters have cast doubt on the analysis, however, noting it assumed Labour would experience a repeat of its 2019 general election result in Scotland, when the party won only one seat.

According to the Financial Times’ general election poll tracker, Labour has a 20-point lead over the Conservatives.

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