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The Guardian view on MPs crossing the floor: a triumph of political theatre over substance | Editorial

The Guardian view on MPs crossing the floor: a triumph of political theatre over substance | Editorial
The Guardian view on MPs crossing the floor: a triumph of political theatre over substance | Editorial

Surveying recent election losses, some Conservatives have concluded that the problem is a deficit of radical Conservatism – a prospectus defined by commitment to always cutting taxes, public spending and immigration. Natalie Elphicke would once have been considered a likely proponent of that approach, but on Wednesday the MP for Dover expressed her frustration with Rishi Sunak’s leadership by moving in a very different direction – to cross the Commons floor and join Labour.

Ms Elphicke’s politics, rooted on the hard right of her former party, gave no indication of propensity for conversion to Keir Starmer’s creed. Setting policy differences aside, some Labour MPs are queasy about the concerted effort their new colleague put into supporting Charlie Elphicke, her predecessor in the Dover seat and now ex-husband, when he faced allegations of sexual assault – offences for which he was jailed.

Ms Elphicke was among a group of MPs whose lobbying of a judge in the case was deemed a breach of the code of conduct by the parliamentary regulator. Had her defection not come with a commitment to stand down at the next general election, there would be difficult questions to answer about her suitability as a Labour candidate.

Meanwhile, with three Tory MPs switching to other parties so far this year – two to Labour, one to Reform – the question animating Conservative benches is who might be next. The losses do not substantially affect parliamentary arithmetic. The impact is on morale. Opposition leaders tend not to be overly discriminating in accepting defectors, partly because they want to advertise the breadth of their appeal across the political spectrum, but mostly because the mere fact of an MP switching sides suggests political momentum. And for an incumbent administration, it is a reliable indicator of irreversible rot.

Ms Elphicke’s record might not make her a natural fit with Labour, but the terms in which she justified the decision were crafted with precision to match the opposition’s lines of attack on Mr Sunak – that he is untrustworthy, ineffective and weak. It was a political coup de théâtre, which left the prime minister looking visibly deflated in the Commons.

Such things matter more in the hothouse atmosphere of Westminster than beyond. In the bigger picture, winning the allegiance of former Tory voters is an essential stage on the journey from opposition to power, and recruiting sitting Tory MPs sends an effective signal that the doors are open. But appearing to pay almost no heed to the credentials of the recruit sits at odds with the opposition’s function in presenting voters with a clear alternative to the government.

Voters like broad-church parties but they also need a sense of those parties’ principles, and where the boundaries lie. Adding one more Labour seat at Tory expense without even requiring a byelection is a gift Sir Keir might have felt he could hardly refuse. Yet he might, when the flurry of excitement has died down, pause to consider how well his new MP embodies the values he intends to bring to office.

That is a luxuriant problem to have compared with the challenge the prime minister now faces. Defections rarely express irresistible attraction to a new party. The motor force is repulsion away from the old one. Ms Elphicke’s decision says very little about Labour, but it is eloquent in casting Mr Sunak’s party as a lost cause.

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