Lee Anderson Defects To Fringe Right-Wing Party

Embattled UK leader Rishi Sunak suffered a fresh blow Monday when a former ally defected to a right-wing populist party that is worrying the ruling Conservatives ahead of this year’s general election.

Lee Anderson announced that he was joining Reform UK, weeks after he was suspended from Sunak’s Conservative party over comments widely condemned as racist and Islamophobic.

The 57-year-old former deputy chair of the Tories became the first MP to represent Reform, whose honorary president is arch-Eurosceptic and Brexit figurehead Nigel Farage.

The fringe party is currently polling at around 10 percent in opinion surveys, which if replicated at the election could split the right-wing vote in key constituencies.

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That would make it even harder for the Tories, in power since 2010, to fend off a resurgent main opposition Labour party that is currently soaring ahead in national polls.

To blunt Reform’s impact, Sunak could take his party further rightward, continuing a trend in recent decades that has accelerated following the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union.

Doing so risks alienating more socially liberal voters, however.

Anderson is an MP in a so-called “Red Wall” seat of working-class voters in northern England that are crucial to both the Conservatives and Labour’s chances of winning the election.

The seats were former Labour strongholds before ex-prime minister Boris Johnson flipped them for the Conservatives during his landslide win at the last election in 2019 on a promise to “get Brexit done”.

The New Conservatives, a group of MPs on the right of the Tory party who have rebelled against Sunak, said the Conservative party was responsible for Anderson’s defection.

“We cannot pretend any longer that ‘the plan is working’. We need to change course urgently,” the group said in a statement.

– Populist –

Reform rails against immigration, net-zero energy policies and what it calls overbearing “nanny state” government regulations, and its members regularly heap praise on former US president Donald Trump.

“I want my country back,” Anderson told reporters in London as he announced his defection.

He had been widely tipped to join Reform after he was suspended from the parliamentary party of the Conservatives in February for refusing to apologise after saying London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan was controlled by Islamists.

“Anderson’s defection does highlight the ongoing electoral problem facing Rishi Sunak, with attacks coming from the left and right,” said Emma Levin of the polling firm Savanta.

But she cautioned that the move “will likely mean very little in national polling terms”.

“Lee Anderson’s name recognition among the wider public is low, and if voters are aware of him, it is probably because they saw (and disagreed) with his comments that led to his suspension from the Conservative party,” Levin said.

In the UK, a by-election is not automatically triggered if an MP changes party affiliation, though they may choose to stand down and seek re-election under their new allegiance or as an independent.

Sunak has yet to announce the date of the general election but has said it will be held in the second half of the year.

AFP

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