Tory MP Natalie Elphicke defects as Rishi Sunak ambushed at PMQs

Rishi Sunak was rocked by another day of drama in parliament as Tory MP Natalie Elphicke ambushed him at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions by crossing the floor to Labour.

The shock move by a previously hard right Conservative was kept secret to the last second by Sir Keir Starmer’s inner circle but left MPs on both sides of the House stunned.

Ms Elphicke’s decision came on a day when the prime minister had hoped to regalvanise his party back into a fighting machine with the first of two briefings on the local elections.

But with scores of Tory MPs boycotting the event, it emerged later that a group is in discussions to get the 52 letters needed to trigger a vote of confidence in Mr Sunak. Plotters are understood to have set a deadline of Wednesday next week to get the necessary letters in.

The prime minister and senior party figures avoided any direct mention of Ms Elphicke at the No10 briefing but her defection to Labour also left many in opposition questioning why Sir Keir had accepted her.

In a damning indictment of Mr Sunak’s government, Ms Elphicke said: “Under Rishi Sunak, the Conservatives have become a byword for incompetence and division. The centre ground has been abandoned and key pledges of the 2019 manifesto have been ditched.”

While many Tory MPs mocked her defection by pulling out the Dover MP’s past tweets and articles attacking Labour over immigration and a “coalition of chaos” with the SNP and Lib Dems, as well as aiming her fire at trade unions, the mood was more sombre at the briefing with the prime minister.

The Independent understands Mr Sunak remained smiling and “upbeat” throughout the hour long session where he, election strategist Isaac Levido and party chairman Richard Holden addressed around 60 Tory MPs. Pointedly, none mentioned Ms Elphicke and focussed on polling in a bid to make the case that the party can still win.

Mr Sunak told them that the local election results were “disappointing… but all to play for.”

One MP noted: “I think it was more about bringing people together and trying to calm nerves.” Critics of the prime minister either stayed away or remained silent with only “lick a***s” standing up to say “Rishi is doing a wonderful job”.

But a number of MPs who did not go made their feelings clear with one describing the event as “a waste of time.” The MP added: “The national message doesn’t work. To win: go local!”

A red wall MP accused the party under Sunak of “disengaging with the working classes” adding they would “definitely not go”. One dispondent MP added: “What’s the point? We have lost anyway.”

The prime minister’s painful predicament was ruthlessly mocked by Sir Keir at the start of PMQs as Ms Elphicke went to sit behind the opposition leader in the packed backbenches.

The triumphant Labour leader, who already had a new MP from the Blackpool South by-election joining his ranks, said: “May I also warmly welcome the new Labour MP, the member for Dover, to these benches?”

Pointing out that she followed Suffolk MP Dr Dan Poulter said: “If one week a Tory MP who is also a doctor says that the prime minister cannot be trusted with the NHS and joins Labour, and the next week the Tory MP for Dover – on the frontline of the small boats crisis – says that the prime minister ‘cannot be trusted’ with our borders and joins Labour, what is the point of this failed Government staggering on?”

But with Tory MPs questioning why their “most rightwing” colleague had been welcomed into the Labour Party there was a backlash from Sir Keir’s own MPs and activists.

Jenny Symmons, a Labour staffer who is also the chair of the GMB branch for members’ staff, has asked for a meeting with the chief whip about the vetting of people wishing to become Labour MPs.

Reflecting the anguish many Labour activists were posting on social media, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell called Ms Elphicke’s defection a “stunt” which reveals “Labour values at the moment”.

He told LBC that the move “damages the Tories, there’s no doubt about that, but it also has implications for the Labour Party as well” adding: “I’m a great believer in the powers of conversion, but I think even this one would have strained the generosity of spirit of John the Baptist, quite honestly.”

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