Wakeford, who supported a backbench bill in 2020 that called for any MP who switches parties to face a recall petition, said it’s “quite clear” his former party would lose the seat at a byelection.
“I think it was quite clear that even the prime minister wasn’t calling for a byelection today, and I think it’s been quite clear that they know they’d lose”, he told broadcasters.
However, in Prestwich town centre, voters from across the political spectrum would like to see that belief tested at the polls, a view also endorsed by Jamie Driscoll, Labour’s mayor in the North of Tyne. In a letter to Boris Johnson released on Wednesday afternoon, Wakeford said he believed “the policies of the Conservative government that you lead are doing nothing to help the people of my constituency and indeed are only making the struggles they face on a daily basis worse”.
Sham Raja, chair of North Manchester’s Conservative Association, said he had been watching PMQs when Wakeford crossed the floor to sit with Keir Starmer’s party. The MP, elected in 2019, made his shock announcement just minutes before.
Raja found the defection “completely disgraceful”, calling for a byelection to see if Wakeford would still win under a “Labour banner”. “We won several seats in Greater Manchester because of Boris Johnson, because of Brexit and because of the Conservative party, and they should be grateful.”
Pamela McArdle, 73, who has voted Conservative for decades but had not had a local Tory MP since 1997, said she was “cross” with Wakeford, who said that the prime minister “is running out of road and he is running out of brass neck to hide behind”.
“Boris Johnson is one person,” McArdle added. “You don’t walk away because you disagree with them.”
Rachel Hopkins, who normally supports Labour, echoed calls for a byelection. “It would be a better outcome than somebody changing colours in such an extreme way. If he was going to the Lib Dems, it would be a bit more credible, but going from Tory to Labour feels a bit ridiculous. I don’t really buy it”.
Molly Griffiths, a 29-year-old staff nurse, welcomed the news as she enjoyed a pint in the sun. “I’m very Labour, so it’s good news. But it’s not a good look in the way that one day he wanted the vote of no confidence for Conservatives and then the next he changed to Labour. Is he still going to hold the same Conservative views?”
Wakeford referenced issues such as free school meals, cuts to universal credit and the cost-of-living crisis, as well as scandals related Dominic Cummings and Owen Paterson, that had led to his decision.
The MP, who worked in the insurance industry and as a local councillor before his election, said the decision had taken “a lot of soul searching” after “many sleepless nights”. “This is something that has taken many months to come to and it’s not been an easy decision, if anything it’s been the most difficult decision I have ever had to make. But I do think it’s the right decision for me, I think it’s the right decision for Bury South.”
Claire Richards, 35, who said Wakeford had helped her with a problem, agreed it was a good move for the area. “I’d vote for him whatever. He seemed a good guy”.
Although greeted with cheers from the Labour benches in Westminster, and a “warm welcome” from Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, a local Labour party source said the news had not “gone down well with local members. None of them voted for him to be the MP, so it will be hard to now embrace him as one of our own. This might be positive news nationally but locally it is not going to end well.”
“He was worried about his P45, wasn’t he?”, said Lol Grant, 51, in reference to Wakeford’s wafer-thin majority of 402 votes. Grant, who works with children with special educational needs, was particularly aggrieved after Wakeford voted against placing a legal duty on water companies not to pump sewage into rivers. “Now he’s behaving like that shit that he voted to allow flow in our pipes and he’s flowing out from one side of the chamber to the other.”