30 June 2022

Forget Red Wall rats – its defections in the shires Tories should worry about

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Westminster is no stranger to gossip and woolly thinking – and the current story about Conservative MPs defecting to Labour smacks of both. Back in January, headlines were made by the choice of Christian Wakeford, sitting on a 402 vote majority in Bury South, to cross the floor. The suggestion is that another Red Wall Tory or two may follow in the wake of their current party’s recent travails. 

Nobody has an exact name or figure for who might be ratting. The Sunday Times suggested up to six Conservatives might take the plunge, whereas The Telegraph plumped for a more, err, conservative three. Either way, such a switch would constitute a huge indictment of the current government and may accelerate another leadership vote. 

Crossing the floor of the House of Commons is the ultimate act of rebellion against one’s own party. It is a fundamental repudiation of its direction, message, and ideas. Traditionally, such defections have largely come when parties have found themselves on something of a sticky wicket. 

Reg Prentice in 1977 – fleeing a Labour Party increasingly dominated by the hard-left into the welcoming arms of Margaret Thatcher. The Gang of Four squeezed between Thatcher and Michael Foot into founding the SDP in 1981. The Independent Group/Change UK/Monkey Tennis, similarly squeezed by May and Corbyn, and seeking to turn British politics back to circa 2000. 

Or Emma Nicholson, Peter Thurnham, and Shaun Woodward, fleeing an impotent Tory Party in the 1990s. Or Churchill, switching from the Conservatives to the Liberals and back again in the space of under two decades, trimming his sail to the prospective political winds. In all these cases, MPs fled across the Commons from parties they feared were heading for disaster. 

Of course, low political calculation always combines with high principles to justify an MP’s decision to rat. Wakeford hasn’t been shy in attacking the Conservatives since he jumped ship – even if he was a relatively loyal MP when he was on their side of the House. Prentice, the SDP, even Soubry et al claimed to be defending social democracy; Churchill hid his naked ambition behind first defending free trade and then seeking to combat socialism. 

Nevertheless, let us not overstate the case. Parliamentary defections are so shocking because they are so rare. If MPs were not largely loyal to their parties, our system of government would break down – and we would see defections far more often, and especially as general elections approached. That we don’t shows how deep tribalism can go. 

But what about all these new Red Wallers? They’re hardly Tories of the old school. They are not former pinstripe-suited teenagers, hell-bent on climbing the greasy pole since birth, clinging lovingly to the same party as their darling Maggie, and now likely representing a lovely leafy constituency somewhere in the south. If the 2019 intake are so independently-minded and community-focused, surely far more will be tempted to ‘do a Wakeford’ and swap sides if it looks like Starmer is on the cusp of victory?

Not exactly. Yes, Red Wall MPs don’t always fit the Tory stereotype. But if one takes time to actually investigate their backgrounds, one discovers they are mostly not the inexperienced politicos or recent converts of journalistic cliché. The bulk of Red Wall MPs are party loyalists: former local councillors, long-standing candidates, and true blues who have stuck with a party traditionally unpopular in many of the areas they now represent. Wakefords are the exception, not the rule.

In fact, I would argue that if Number 10 has anybody to worry, they are more likely to be those aforementioned pinstripe and pole enthusiasts. When reviewing the list of recent defectors, it is striking how rarely those Tory MPs switching sides tend to be from constituencies with small majorities. Shaun Woodward, for example, was sitting on a healthy majority of 7,028 in Witney when he switched from the Conservative frontbenches to the Labour backbenches in 1999. 

Woodward’s reason for resigning was a dispute with William Hague over the party’s support for retaining Section 28. But under New Labour, he also found himself rapidly ascending into higher office. Similarly, Wakeford has already been made a Parliamentary Private Secretary to Bridget Phillipson, the Shadow Education Secretary. High principle again combined with low political calculation. 

Across the south, there are an increasing number of Conservative MPs in seats that voted Remain and will be looking over their shoulders at the spectres of Sir Keir and Sir Ed. They may be thinking the same thing: if I can’t beat them, why don’t I join them? 

With Brexit gone as a major dividing line, and with Tory and Labour economic policies reaching a Butskellite level of indistinguishability, the move should be easier than at any time in the last decade. Moreover, with Labour’s benches largely empty of those with experience of office, any former Conservative minister unlikely to receive a promotion from the current leadership may fancy their chances with the Opposition. 

So whilst current headlines may just be the latest example of Westminster gossip and tattletale, they do raise a potential headache for the Prime Minister. If he wants to survive, he will have to keep as many MPs onside as possible. But if they are worried for their careers or seats, or even just feel Starmer and his milquetoast Marxists would do a better job of running the country, defection will seem an increasingly attractive idea.  

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.