13 May 2024

Poor party discipline is proving to be Rishi Sunak’s undoing. But Starmer should be wary too.

Party defections, internal strife, and strategic maneuvers: UK politics at a crossroads. As Rishi Sunak grapples with Tory fractures, Starmer navigates Labour's challenges. Can either leader keep their party united amidst looming elections?

Tom Cresswell

Last week, just before PMQs, Natalie Elphicke MP defected from the Tories to Labour. It followed Dr Dan Poulter MP’s defection just a week earlier and Lee Anderson to Reform UK in March. 

Whilst it is not the widely speculated coup that Rishi Sunak would face after the Conservative’s catastrophic results in the local elections, the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” is not far from commentator’s lips. 

From the very beginning of his premiership, Sunak has struggled to keep his party under control. Nadine Dorries, committed Johnsonian, declared “history will not judge you kindly” to her leader; Suella Braverman told the Prime Minister that “Someone needs to be honest: your plan is not working, we have endured record election defeats, your resets have failed and we are running out of time”; and more recently Simon Clarke said “Rishi Sunak is leading the Conservatives into an election where we will be massacred”. 

This lack of party discipline is not entirely Sunak’s fault. The Conservatives have been in government for 14 years, Tory MPs are gloomy about their electoral prospects and the MPs who united over delivering Brexit in 2019 have begun to realise that the broad coalition they created might be too broad to maintain. 

Sunak faces a catch-22. If he tacks to the right to allay fears that Reform UK is stealing Tory votes, he risks unsettling the base of mainstream Tory MP support that brought him into No. 10 unchallenged. Yet if he shifts towards the centre, he will further enrage the likes of Suella Braverman and the right of his party. In his current position, he is satisfying no one and the threat of further defections looms large.

A plague on both your houses?  

It’s not just an issue for Sunak though. Natalie Elphicke’s defection is also posing problems for the Leader of the Opposition. 

Labour backbenchers have been vocal behind closed doors (and in public) about their views on her “Damascene conversion”. Many cite Elphicke’s criticisms of Marcus Rashford’s campaign against child food poverty (Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves memorably told Elphicke to “f*ck off” over these comments) and her fervent attacks on Labour’s plans for immigration as cause for concern. Moreover, there is widespread anger amongst female Labour MPs and staffers over Elphicke’s defence of her former MP husband, Charlie Elphicke, after his conviction for sexual assault in 2020. Starmer has made the short-term political calculation that a defection makes a good headline. Whether he and his team mapped out the effect it would have on his party is less clear. 

It is difficult to imagine Rishi Sunak inviting a controversial opposition figure into the Conservative Party without facing threats of a leadership challenge; the fact that Starmer is willing and able to make such an internally controversial move is a sign of his leadership’s comparative strength. Though there is clear unhappiness within the Parliamentary Labour Party, Starmer is assured enough in his position to ride out any criticism. 

In an effort to limit the damage, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner has been sent out to tell backbenchers that Elphicke will have no “formal role” in the party, but the allegations that Elphicke lobbied her former Government colleagues in an effort to delay her ex-husband’s trial won’t help the Labour leadership to keep the dissent in check. 

Nonetheless, by sending his Deputy Leader out to talk to the troops, Starmer appears to have learnt from previous mishaps that it’s better to head off any discontent before a full-throated uproar develops. 

This learning curve came in part from the difficulty he faced in keeping his party together over the conflict in the Middle East. When the Labour leader and his Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy began to call explicitly for an “immediate ceasefire” it was not just a reflection of the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but also a desire to prove to his backbenchers that he was alert to their discontent over his initial hesitancy.  

The crunch point for Starmer came in February, when the SNP put a motion to Parliament calling for a ceasefire. Partly in an effort to destabilise Labour, the SNP hoped to entice MPs to vote against their whip and support the motion. Faced with front bench resignations, Labour controversially tabled their own motion calling for a ceasefire. The move enraged other Parliamentarians, but quelled concerns within Labour; for now, the danger for Starmer from his own backbenches seems to have passed. 

Indeed, party discipline under Starmer is, for the most part, far better than under Sunak. In the same way the prospect of heavy defeat is damaging Conservative Party discipline, the prospect of power is holding the Labour Party together. The far left are maintaining their silence over Starmer’s leadership, and public red-on-red criticism is almost non-existent. Though trade union leaders such as Unite’s Sharon Graham are beginning to dig in over rumours that Labour will water down their proposed workers’ rights package ‘A New Deal for Working People’, they too have kept their criticisms of Starmer to a minimum. The British left seem determined to focus fire on the Tories. 

So long as he can maintain this fragile truce between his party’s internal factions, Starmer will continue to exploit the Conservative’s division more effectively than the Prime Minister can seek to emphasise Labour’s. 

Divided parties don’t win elections, and both leaders must be wary of their relationships with their parties. With anticipation rising for a general election, a febrile atmosphere has descended on Parliament in time for Summer. Amidst these tensions, managing backbenchers eager to get an election over with will not get any easier. 

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