BY SCOTT CRESSWELL
After a catalogue of parties were found to have happened amid Covid restrictions among Downing Street staff, Boris Johnson is under immense pressure.
Defections in the political world often send Westminster into a frenzy of confusion and panic. Although defections occur at local levels virtually every week, they happen less so in Parliament, and even less so quite like this.
Christian Wakeford’s defection from the Conservatives, a party trying desperately to consolidate support from the historically Labour-supporting Red Wall, directly to the party who he once believed betrayed those voters is certainly a surprise. It was announced just moments before Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and clearly shook Boris Johnson and the Conservatives.
Direct defections from the major two parties are huge moments, but they’re not as rare as you’d think. Since Reg Prentice became the last Labour MP to join the Tories in 1977, there have been five Conservative-to-Labour defections (Alan Howarth in 1995, Shaun Woodward in 1999, Robert Jackson in 2005, Quentin Davies in 2007, and now Christian Wakeford in 2022). Some defections have had little effect in the grand scheme of events, but others are a sign of something far more damaging. Is this the case today?
Many defections are a result of disillusionment with a tired government coming to its end, which is the case with several defectors over the years. Alternatively, for others it’s the complete abandonment not of ideals or views, but of an old party in favour of another (in the 1980s with the SDP, or a century before with the Liberal Unionists).
Wakeford conforms to the former. If it wasn’t obvious enough, Boris Johnson’s premiership has been hit by tough times in the last few months. The reasons that Wakeford states for his leaving the Tories include most of the controversies we’ve come to expect from this government from Dominic Cummings to “party gate.” His anger is shared by much of the public.
However, it can be argued that Wakeford’s defection has had the opposite effect intended. No doubt Sir Keir Starmer will celebrate the defection as a vindication that Labour has progressed from the Corbyn years, but it appears that Tory MPs have been rallying around the Prime Minister since. Anger, particularly among Red Wall MPs, is being directed towards Wakeford rather than Johnson.
Labour must not kid themselves into thinking that the situation is over. It’s down to them to carry out the next steps. Labour may have already signalled to the press that a by-election in Bury South, the seat held by Wakeford, isn’t on the cards, but perhaps a reversal of that decision may be exactly what the opposition needs to bring down Boris Johnson.
Throughout his short tenure as Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has suffered three by-election defeats, two of them in the past year. Both indicated a sharp loss of support in traditional Conservative heartlands. Amanda Milling, the then-Chairperson of the Conservative Party, described the party’s defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election as a “warning shot”. The Liberal Democrats claimed to be on course for destroying that Blue Wall in the south, only months before repeating the sentiment in the aftermath of surprise Tory defeat in North Shropshire last December. As two Blue Walls appear to be on the edge of collapse, a Labour victory in the Red Wall would provide the final stroke of sheer anxiety required for the Tories to throw out Johnson.
In the 2019 election, Bury South was won by the Tories by only 402 votes; a swing of just 0.4% is all that’s required for the seat to change hands from blue to red. Constituency voters may be very mixed on Wakeford’s decision to defect, but a strong Labour campaign focusing on Boris Johnson’s government (now also accused of corruption) and its lack of transparency will be more than enough. Plainly put, it’s an easy goal that Labour would be foolish to miss. Additionally, even if Johnson is deposed by the Tories before a hypothetical by-election, a Conservative loss in the constituency will undoubtedly damage the authority of the new Prime Minister just weeks after obtaining office.
In terms of a candidate, it’s become clear that many outside the Parliamentary Labour Party are uncomfortable with Wakeford taking the Labour whip. Many on the left, and even Young Labour, have publicly decried this. Although, without a shadow of doubt, Starmer will want Wakeford to adopt the Labour colours to fight any election, there are obvious questions of loyalty.
Like Shaun Woodward in 1999 (the only Labour MP to have ever acquired a butler), Wakeford is still ideologically on the right. Labour has always been a broad church when they’re a successful winning party. However, as an elected official for Labour, it seems unlikely that Wakeford conforms to any socialistic or social democratic views, but perhaps more to a form of one-nation conservatism.
Either way, there’s a strong case, firstly for democratic purposes and secondly for party purposes, for a by-election in Bury South. Even as the never-ending conveyor belt of Tory sleaze fails to stop, Johnson’s forced dismissal from office is far from assured. A by-election in Bury South can be incredibly lucrative for Labour, and it will be the final proof to the Tories that the days of Boris Johnson as an electable force have long passed.
Image - Flickr (Number 10)