The Insider

Lee Anderson’s defection shows the depth of the Tory crisis

Infighting and weakness in the Conservative party may turn a slim Labour majority into a landslide

March 13, 2024
Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The Tory party is falling apart and Lee Anderson’s defection to Richard Tice’s Reform party is the latest symptom. The longer Rishi Sunak delays the election, the worse it will become. 

Defections by MPs are a sure sign of a party in crisis. They are usually the tip of the iceberg of disaffection and disillusion. John Major and William Hague both suffered defections in the 1990s to Labour or the Liberal Democrats, while Cameron saw defections to Nigel Farage’s Ukip before 2015. These were all significant straws in the wind, including, in the case of Cameron, a gust coming from the anti-European populist right wing which was unexpectedly to unseat him in 2016. Sunak faces a gale from both Labour and Reform, with Reform setting itself up as an extreme version of the post-Brexit Tory party—outbidding Sunak in being anti-European, anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, anti-woke. 

The string of MP defectors from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party before 2019 was equally a testament to a crisis of identity and authority. Boris Johnson faced Tory defections at the same time, but these were more akin to expulsions, as MPs who voted against Johnson over Brexit had the party whip withdrawn to enable him to wage a winning populist campaign to “Get Brexit Done” and see off Corbyn. 

Anderson previously had the Tory party whip withdrawn because of outrageous Islamophobic remarks about Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. But Sunak had previously made the blunt-speaking northern MP a deputy chairman of the Tory party, thus turning him into the flagbearer of a new, anti-woke dividing line with Labour. His inability to control his appointee, or to get him to apologise afterwards for the slur against Khan, is a testament both to Sunak’s weakness and his lack of judgement. 

The far bigger event of the last week was the budget, with its substantial cut in the rate of National Insurance contributions. This made no impact whatever on Labour’s poll lead, and the fact that the budget could be so easily dislodged by Anderson in the feverish pre-election atmosphere of Westminster is a sign of how little policy matters to the current political debate. The consensus is that Sunak is finished, and the only question is whether his opponents, or his internal critics and would-be successors, get him first. 

It is highly unlikely there will be a May election because the likelihood of massive Tory defeat is so strong. October or November is far more realistic. But the damage done to the Tories by a continuation of this infighting and weakness could be the difference between a slim Labour majority and a Labour landslide. 

There is still an outside possibility of a formal challenge to Sunak’s leadership by malcontent Tory MPs. If this happened it would probably take place after the May local elections, which are set to be a bloodbath for the Tories. Sunak would probably survive an internal challenge, but it would be another turn of the screw towards a Labour landslide. 

I can think of no decent precedent for a British governing party so weakened by failure and internal disunity in the run up to a general election. Major in 1997, and even Callaghan in 1979, had a firmer grip on their respective parties than does Sunak today. But then there is no modern precedent for there being three prime ministers within one parliamentary term.

It is not just weakness that pervades Sunak. It is a more fundamental crisis of legitimacy. He appears to be beyond any hope of recovery.