“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” says Don Michael Corleone in the final instalment of The Godfather. One man who could relate to that scene is Nigel Farage: despite his best efforts, he simply can’t escape British politics.
Disillusioned with Boris Johnson’s premiership and what he sees as the Government’s failure to make the most out of Brexit, Farage has made clear his intention to get more involved with Reform, the party which replaced the Brexit Party. Should Boris be worried?
It is easy to laugh at Farage, but one key lesson of the last decade is to never underestimate him. Were it not for him and his political crusade, the UK would almost certainly still be in the European Union and Labour would still have its Red Wall.
Currently averaging 5% in the polls, Reform, under the stewardship of former Brexit Party MEP Richard Tice, is making no secret of its political strategy: it plans to exploit the rapidly growing rift between Boris Johnson and his conservative voters who are today just as likely to come from the Labour heartlands as the Tory shires.
Therein lies a crucial point. Many of the voters on whom Boris Johnson depends are more blue-collar, non-graduate and culturally conservative than those who supported David Cameron just a few years ago. They are more purple than blue, more Faragist than Cameroon.
And they too have learned an important lesson: they can use revolts on the Right to bend the Tories to their will. Many of these voters have gone on a long political journey, from choosing New Labour in the 2000s, David Cameron in 2010, Ukip at the European elections, the Brexit Party in 2019 and finally Boris Johnson. Will they defect again? It’s now in their DNA.
So what is Reform’s pitch to them? Whereas Farage used to campaign relentlessly against the European Union, mass immigration and what he saw as a homogeneous political class in Westminster, Reform has kept much of the latter while reforming the former.
With Brexit now delivered, Farage has changed gear, talking more about Net Zero than needing to leave the EU. His plan is to remind voters across the Red Wall that one quarter of their electricity bills is now spent on green subsidies, that Channel crossings are out of control, that immigration has not yet been brought back under control and that under Boris Johnson the country is now ruled by “a metropolitan Tory chumocracy totally detached from the rest of the country”.
Scroll through Reform’s policies and you’ll find an offer tailored for the very people who are now abandoning Johnson in the polls. A call to return to low taxes. To push back against ‘woke nonsense’. To reform the BBC. And to restore freedom of speech.
One person who would approve is Lord Frost, who this week used his first intervention since resigning from government to urge Johnson to become a ‘true Tory’ or risk imminent defeat. He pointed to many of the same issues that are being targeted by Reform: sharp tax rises, an obsession with Net Zero, the failure to make the most out of Brexit, the policing of other people’s opinions by those who Frost calls “woke warriors” — people who appear determined to revise if not repudiate British history, identity and culture.
To what extent is there room for such a revolt? Almost a decade ago, in Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and I warned that the Conservative Party was vulnerable to a rebellion on its Right flank among specific groups of voters who both main parties had lost sight of: working-class, non-graduate, culturally conservative, older Britons. Shortly afterwards, Farage and Ukip won the 2014 European Parliament elections before a majority of voters then opted for Brexit. The revolt went mainstream.
Yet far from resolving this underlying tension, in many ways Brexit and Boris Johnson now appear to be breathing new life into it. There was always an open question as to whether Johnson would be able to hold support from the cultural conservatives who flocked to Farage and Brexit. And now, at the halfway point of his premiership, we are getting the answer.
Johnson is increasingly adrift from his core supporters on not just one but many issues, so much so that it is not hard to see how Reform, which is already attracting around 11% of the Leave vote, could soon morph into a far more formidable force in British politics. While they might not have any upcoming European elections, which Farage used to demonstrate his electoral credibility, they do have the fact that Boris Johnson is currently haemorrhaging Leave voters.
In the polls, the picture facing the Conservative Party today is even worse than it was before Christmas, when it first became clear that Leavers were starting to abandon the party in droves. While Labour have cemented their lead, the Conservatives have now not held a lead outside the margin of error since the first week of November. And at the heart of this are the very voters who Reform and Farage now have within their sights.
The share of Leave voters who plan to vote Conservative at the next election is continuing to slide, from 72% last June to 62% in October, 60% in November and 58% this month. Today, remarkably, fewer than half of Leavers think that Johnson, who actually delivered Brexit, would make the best Prime Minister.
Nor are these the only signs which point to potential inroads for Reform. Amid an escalating cost of living crisis, higher inflation and looming tax rises, a tide of disillusionment is now sweeping through an already fragmenting Conservative electorate.
One survey last week put the Conservatives sixteen points behind Labour across more than fifty seats which Johnson won in 2019. Another suggests almost 80% of Red Wallers say Johnson ‘does not understand their pain’. And another finds that while only 26% of British voters have heard of ‘levelling-up’, almost three-quarters of people across the north do not know what it means or have never heard of it at all.
It will take more than a delayed levelling-up white paper to solve this. Johnson has simply failed to sell his core policies to his core voters. Pollsters might point to the fact that large numbers of voters say we should tackle climate change as evidence for the suggestion they will put up with costly climate change policies. But they miss a key point. For many conservatives this is simply not a salient issue. They just do not see it as a pressing priority in the way fighting crime or curbing immigration are.
Meanwhile, when it comes to Brexit, only half of Johnson’s core voters think it is going well. When it comes to immigrants crossing the English Channel, not even one in ten think the government is doing a good job. And when it comes to levelling-up, only 8% think it will lead to more money being spent on their local area.
It is a similar story for other areas which are attracting the wrath of prominent Eurosceptics such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, including tax. For the first time since Boris Johnson took power, today the share of Conservatives who think the Government is taxing too much and spending too much on public services has eclipsed the share who think it has got the balance right.And when it comes to cancel culture, while most conservatives think the Government should prioritise the protection of free speech, nearly two-thirds also feel they are now living in a country where they have to stop themselves from expressing their real views because of their fears about what will happen if they do.
These things matter. Many people in Britain do feel, strongly, that ancient and hard-won freedoms are under threat from an alliance of Big Tech, radical progressives and cancel culture. The Left might dismiss all this as ‘culture war politics’, but it could easily become as potent for the radical Right today as Brexit was to an earlier generation.
We simply now live in a country where voters have become far more used to switching their political loyalties from one election to the next, where the Conservative Party’s leadership is no longer aligned with its new electorate, where the vote for Brexit has shown voters the kind of change they can bring about and where culture remains just as important as economics. It might be tempting to argue that the revolt on the Right is over — but only a fool would believe it.