Election Countdown

A potted history of political defections

Natalie Elphicke’s decision to cross the floor has caused a storm in the Labour party. But for Keir Starmer, it’s worth it

May 13, 2024
Keir Starmer’s decision to allow Natalie Elphicke into his party has upset some MPs. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Keir Starmer’s decision to allow Natalie Elphicke into his party has upset some MPs. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

It was big news when Reg Prentice switched from Labour to Conservative in 1977. He has been a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. His decision to cross the floor secured one of the accolades of the times—a full interview on Weekend World, then the leading political TV programme 

His interviewer, Brian Walden (himself a former Labour MP who had left parliament altogether) was not impressed. He accused Prentice on ratting on his former party. Prentice puffed his chest and sought to put Walden down. He reminded Walden that Winston Churchill had changed parties not once but twice: “Churchill not only ratted but re-ratted”.

Walden’s immediate retort punctured Prentice’s pride: “Yes, but Winston Churchill was Winston Churchill. Weg Pwentice is Weg Pwentice”. (Walden, like Roy Jenkins, had difficulty pronouncing “r”.)

Nevertheless, Prentice deserved his 15 minutes of fame. Not only had he been a cabinet minister; he had endured ferocious personal abuse from left-wing activists in his own constituency. Today, a fortnight after two defections from the Tories to Labour, Prentice is worth remembering for a further reason. He was the first MP since Churchill, in 1904, to switch directly between the two main parties. (When Churchill “re-ratted” in 1924 he was out of parliament. He did not so much cross the floor this time as leave through one door and return through another.)

The long gap between Churchill and Prentice is worth recalling when reading stories that more Conservatives might cross the floor in coming weeks. We need to put to one side the much larger number of MPs who have changed their party label in other ways. Many have done when parties split, such as when the Tories fell out over the Corn Laws in the 1840s, or a group of MPs left Labour set up the Social Democrats in the 1980s. Many examples can also be found of MPs switching parties in two stages, with “independent” as a staging post.

Perhaps the most notorious defector was Oswald Mosley, a member of the first Labour government in 1924 who later set up the British Union of Fascists. He had first been elected as a Conservative MP. When he switched briefly, via an independent interlude, to Labour, his new political label seemed to sit awkwardly with his opulent lifestyle and choice of upper-crust mistresses. When this was put to him, he is said to have replied that his maxim was “vote Labour, sleep Tory”.

After Prentice, no more MPs crossed the floor in a single leap between Labour and Conservative for 18 years. However, since 1995 it has become, if not exactly commonplace, at least much less rare. Here is a full list of those who have done it in the living memory of even the oldest voter.

Before Nathalie Elphicke, did any of these events make much difference? Not really, except to the people themselves. Some—such as Prentice and Woodward as well as Churchill himself—went on to enjoy ministerial careers in their new parties. Others, such as Jackson and Davies, stood down at the subsequent general election. Poulter and Elphicke have said they will do the same.

That said, two things stand out about Elphicke. One is that subsequent stories about her past behaviour have intensified the controversy inside the Labour party about the wisdom of admitting her to its ranks. The second is that her defection is ideologically the most surprising of all recent defections. It’s not quite as odd as if Jeremy Corbyn had joined the Conservatives, but not far short.

Hence the sharp debate within the Labour party. As Neil Kinnock says, even the broadest church has walls. But if we consider that metaphor a little further, a question arises. To achieve the big victory it wants, Labour must attract millions of voters who supported Boris Johnson in 2019. Are all of them welcome to join Labour’s congregation, or only those who repent of their past political sins? 

Keir Starmer is clearly willing to ride out the current storm inside his party. He would like more Conservative MPs to switch sides. Like Elphicke, all of them will have a record of attacking Labour policies and voting for hated Tory measures. But the very thing that appals some backbenchers and trade union leaders is, he reckons, electoral gold dust. The more Tories that cross the floor, the better his chances of persuading former Tory supporters that his “changed Labour party” (he adds the prefix “changed” as frequently as Tony Blair used to add “new”) is on their side. 

His trick will be to get that across, while keeping narrower criteria for those who want to stand for election. He is happy to have right-wing voters, but not right-wing candidates. Thankfully for Starmer, Elphicke has saved him from the dilemma that this would have posed had she sought to stand for Labour at the coming general election. If, as some media stories suggest, more defections are in the pipeline, this issue might be harder to avoid. He must be hoping that any more MPs who cross the floor will also accept that their parliamentary career is drawing to a close. 

If so, it looks as if Starmer’s strategy is to welcome all comers to the nave of Labour’s broad church, but restrict access to its side chapel for candidates to those who pass a more rigorous test. I’m fairly sure a modern-day Mosley would fail. Is this approach theologically pure? Of course not. Is it politically smart? Definitely—which is precisely why the Conservatives are so scared of more defections, and so keen to discredit Elphicke.