Christian Wakeford’s defection: how did it happen, and what comes next?

Sienna Rodgers
©️ Richard Townshend/CC BY 3.0

Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South since 2019, defected from the Conservatives to the Labour Party today. It is a big moment for Keir Starmer. How did that happen? The Labour leader’s spokesperson has confirmed that talks about Wakeford defecting have been going on “some time” and it “predates” the ‘partygate’ scandal. Labour whip Chris Elmore is understood to have been involved. My understanding is that Barry Gardiner had a lot to do with it, too.

One of Gardiner’s staffers knows Wakeford well: on January 1st, he posted a picture of selfie with the Tory MP alongside the cheeky hint “Change U.K. being finalised”; today, he described the defection as “my finest achievement to date”. Gardiner himself got to know Wakeford better during the campaign against fire and rehire, when the two MPs spoke together in public about their opposition to the practice and Wakeford was the only Tory MP to back his bill in October. “You need to come over and join the good side,” Gardiner and his staffer would, only half-jokingly, tell Wakeford. Of the defection today, Gardiner told me: “We’ve felt for a while that was on the cards.”

At least three other 2019 Tory intake MPs are being spoken to about defection, and there is optimism within Labour that Wakeford won’t be the last to make the dramatic move. It is expected that other potential defectors will be looking closely at how Wakeford is received, how smoothly the transition goes and what kind of stick he gets from colleagues and friends (a fair amount is probably the answer). But as long as it does not go disastrously wrong for the new Labour MP, it is thought that others – not immediately, but eventually – could follow his lead.

Labour’s local party in Bury South is due to hold its next meeting tomorrow. While its youth officer has called for a by-election and declared that he would not back Wakeford to be Labour’s candidate, the local chair Paddy Heneghan (not Labour’s former executive director of elections, but his father), has welcomed Wakeford. “Members of our constituency party will be meeting tomorrow to discuss how we will be working with our new Labour MP to fight for the interests of residents and secure a future Labour government,” the local party chair said.

The Labour leadership has decided that there is no need for a by-election. There are many reasons to make this decision: to avoid spending money on a by-election when Labour has financial problems; to encourage other possible defectors; and to avoid potential selection difficulties. But has a deal already been struck over Wakeford’s selection as Labour’s candidate at the next general election, as some have speculated?

Sitting Labour MPs are currently going through trigger ballots to determine whether they are automatically reselected or face a full selection contest. When asked whether this would apply to Wakeford, Starmer’s spokesperson said this would be confirmed once “the relevant people, both in the local party and nationally” had been spoken to, but also hinted: “The process applies equally.” Members will be hoping to get more clarity on this point at tomorrow’s meeting. What happens in Bury South could determine whether other Tory MPs frustrated with Boris Johnson join Wakeford – and the Labour Party.

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