Anderson’s defection is a wake-up call for the Tories

Lee Anderson
Lee Anderson

The defection of Lee Anderson MP to the Reform Party has echoes of the departures 10 years ago of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless to Ukip, save in one key respect. They stepped down and fought (and won) by-elections.

Mr Anderson has decided not to follow suit, even though he once supported legislation that would have required MPs changing parties mid-parliament to face the voters, but it never made it into law. He said it would not be right to do so given we are close to a general election, though it would have tested Reform’s support had he done so.

The MP for Ashfield had been Conservative Party vice-chairman before he resigned the post in order to vote against the Government over immigration. He was then suspended last month for refusing to apologise for suggesting that Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, was in thrall to Islamists.

His defection had been predicted ever since and came as no great surprise at Westminster, but it opened him up to merciless criticism from his erstwhile Tory colleagues. While ranks will be closed and wagons circled, however, his defection should not be so easily dismissed.

Mr Anderson was made vice-chairman for a reason: as the son of a miner, he appealed to disgruntled voters in traditional Labour areas who backed the Conservatives in 2019. Some of these are now moving across to Reform, which is consistently receiving the support of about 10 per cent of the electorate, enough in several recent by-elections to deny the Tories the seats.

Although Brexit was delivered, the Government has subsequently failed to address the issue that motivated millions of Leave voters in the 2016 referendum: immigration. Levels are far higher now than when Britain was in the EU.

The 2019 manifesto on which Boris Johnson won a majority of 80 promised to control the borders. The fact that this has not happened is behind the surge for Reform. Mr Anderson was forthright at his news conference announcing his desertion: “I want my country back,” he said.

In a party containing a range of opinions, Rishi Sunak has to perform a difficult balancing act to avoid alienating other Conservatives by tilting too far to the Right. However, getting a grip on immigration is not an extreme policy but a promise on which this Government was elected. Unless it starts to deliver the controls that people expect and does so soon, the advance of Reform will be hard to hold back.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.