Few may know of Baron Howarth of Newport. But in 1995, on the eve of the Conservative party conference, as plain old Alan Howarth he became the first Conservative MP to directly defect to the Labour party. Today, just ten minutes before PMQs, Christian Wakeford became the fourth Tory MP to join the Labour benches. His timing was excruciatingly cruel for a Prime Minister visibly sinking under the weight of his many contradictory obfuscations over ‘partygate’.
Howarth had been an MP since 1983, a junior minister and a strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms: he was no wet. His defection was a body blow to the already embattled John Major government. But a party spokesperson put a brave face on it. ‘This will make no difference to government policies’, they said while pointing out Howarth had spent all his time in the Commons opposing Labour.
In response, the defecting MP attacked the increasing cruelty of the Major government and said it was Labour’s ‘renewal’ under Blair that had prompted him to change sides. As Alastair Campbell’s diaries reveal, Howarth had made his inclinations apparent to the Labour leader weeks before, but it was decided he should announce his defection at the time best calculated to undermine Conservative morale. Howarth was also coached in the words and phrases he should use in interviews to best help his new party, which then was calling itself ‘One Nation Labour’ and had under Blair pitched its tent on traditional Conservative ground.
Howarth’s defection was a well-choreographed piece of political theatre, one now long forgotten, but at the time it dominated the headlines for more than a few days: journalists were agog with its implications for a divided and troubled Conservative government and a Labour party that looked like it was finally, after 16 years in the wilderness, knocking on the door of power.
How many of those future historians, to which contemporaries like to refer, will recall Wakeford’s announcement that he is quitting Boris Johnson’s party to join up with Keir Starmer? But the shock it produced in the Commons and across the nation’s TV studios was visceral.
Unlike Howarth, Wakeford has only been an MPs since 2019, one of those meant to owe their place to Johnson’s election-winning prowess. His resignation letter however showed little gratitude and was clearly written under Labour guidance. It told the Prime Minister that ‘you and the Conservative party as a whole have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves’. Labour. Wakeford said. was ‘ready to provide an alternative government that this country can be proud of’. And there Wakeford sat at PMQs, just behind the leader of the opposition with his Union Jack face mask on, something even Starmer has not yet dared wear.
If this provoked a bitter Nadine Dorries to tweet the Union Jack was not welcome on Labour’s side of the House, it allowed Starmer to claim Wakeford’s defection proved Labour had changed. And whatever the real reasons for Wakeford’s defection, that is what Labour will want voters to think. Since becoming leader Starmer has taken every opportunity to claim his party was under ‘new leadership’, and to make the point he has stood by innumerable Union Jacks and loudly declared his patriotism. But a defecting Conservative MP — whoever it may be — makes this argument in a way nothing else could.
Wakeford’s seat of Bury South might be in the North but it is no Red Wall seat — instead, it is a fairly well-off classic Labour-Conservative marginal on the boundaries of metropolitan Manchester. Over the years it has regularly switched between the two parties: usually the one that wins Bury South wins national office. But it is to Labour’s lost Red Wall voters that Starmer will hope Wakeford’s defection will make the most impression.
Already, thanks to Johnson’s alleged breaking of lockdown rules, Labour enjoys a significant lead in the Red Wall seats and — right now — would win back 42 of the 45 that slipped through Corbyn’s fingers in 2019. But while Starmer is enjoying a double-digit lead nationally, the pollster Chris Curtis has calculated that this is largely due to 2019 Conservative voters going into the ‘don’t know' or 'won’t vote’ column. Only 10 per cent so far have made the direct switch to Labour and about the same proportion say they would vote for a party other than Starmer’s. Johnson has given Labour an opportunity which in November nobody could have dreamed of, but the party needs to persuade more 2019 Conservatives to go directly to Labour — Starmer must make his ‘change’ message land more firmly and permanently.
Wakeford’s defection can only help in this endeavour and the way Starmer’s team dropped their bombshell suggests that they have learnt at least some of New Labour’s tricks. However, it wasn’t just Nadine Dorries who was miffed by Wakeford’s defection. Momentum, which used to act as Jeremy Corbyn’s praetorian guard attacked him for supporting Conservatives policies that have hurt working people. So far as some on the left of the party are concerned, Wakeford’s defection was evidence of change but it is change of the kind they will continue to vigorously oppose.