“Reform? Reform? Aren’t things bad enough already?” It’s unlikely this 19th-century phrase was uttered by any of the Tory leaders it is commonly attributed to, so perhaps we should give it to Rishi Sunak. He may have slightly raised the poor polling he inherited from Liz Truss, but the spectre of a Right-wing insurgency still haunts his prospects in 2024. Recent polling puts Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party, ahead of the Liberal Democrats and Greens on 9% — enough to help eviscerate the Conservative Party.
In their own ways, both David Cameron and Theresa May were undone by this threat from the Right. The success of Ukip, taking more than a quarter of the vote in the 2014 European Elections, forced Cameron into pledging an EU referendum at the following general election — a move which arguably delivered him a majority but saw his premiership unravel once he lost the ensuing vote. Then, after the following European election, the Brexit Party’s 30% share accelerated the end of May’s time in office. In 2024, another strong showing could inflict even greater damage on the Tories. For a decade, the Tories have struggled to fully reconcile with their Right wing, leaving the door open to insurgents.
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Reform UK, like the Brexit Party (technically the same beast by a different name) and Ukip, looks to take votes from the populist end of the Tory spectrum. As a rule of thumb, around two-thirds of their supporters are former Tories; the rest are largely from the Eurosceptic Left. On that basis, polling at around 10% suggests they’ve gained about 6 points off the Tories, though it could be higher as some have already made the Lab-Ukip-Con journey.
This probably isn’t enough to win any seats. Our first-past-the-post system continues to work against new parties, and Reform UK’s support seems spread across too many areas to carry them into parliament. Where they are concentrated, it tends to be in heavily Tory areas where a massive swing would be needed. So far, this has eluded the Right-wing challengers. The Brexit Party didn’t make much of a dent in 2019 (perhaps because of the Tories’ embrace of Brexit) and Nigel Farage failed in every attempt to get into parliament for Ukip. Neither party has won a seat in a general election but have gained votes by grappling with issues such as immigration and Brexit where the Tories have often looked weak.
Yet this doesn’t mean the threat to the Tories is over. With a 6% swing against them, losing votes to Reform UK could mean the difference between holding on and being swept away in a bunch of key constituencies. There are a dozen or so seats on Labour’s target list where a strong showing from Reform could help edge out the Tories — places such as Kettering or Thanet North where even a good night for Labour might fall short, but where losing a couple of percentage points to Reform would be costly.
These seats in particular point to an interesting electoral pattern. They are areas not simply where old industries have died away, but old patterns of life have too. They’ve aged as towns, with the young and ambitious moving away to universities and not returning. They have born some of the brunt of austerity and feel alienated on more cultural issues such as immigration. With these shifts, older voting habits have splintered, with Labour seeming too metropolitan and the Conservatives too economically liberal. Yet the major parties have only occasionally spoken for them, while Farage has often embraced their narrative.
The return of Reform also presents a strategic problem for Sunak. The Conservative success of 2019 sits on an odd electoral coalition, built as much from anti-Corbynism as the Vote Leave success. It brought together the sort of populist Brexiteer voters who might be tempted by Reform as well as more centrist Remain-leaning voters who held their nose to keep out a radical Labour government. Now the party must be selective about who it keeps in the tent and who it chooses to retreat from: in the next election, the Tory party will face a fight on all fronts.
Many of those already fed up with Boris will be far more relaxed about letting Starmer’s Labour in than Corbyn’s. These are the type of voters who already switched to Lib Dem in Chesham and in North Shropshire, and could do the same across the Home Counties. They are unlikely to be swayed by another populist turn from the Tories. Yet abandoning the cry of “more Brexit, more police, more spending” risks sending other key voters into the arms of Reform. It’s a narrow path to the best possible outcome, a result of the Tories inability to present as truly centrist or truly Rightist over the last few years.
At the same time, the decisiveness of Reform is not guaranteed. The party is a strange beast — not even a party in the truest sense, but a registered company with centralised control. It had been a Farage vehicle, but is now led by Richard Tice, a property investor turned political agitator. It lacks much internal coherence, and often seems to be chasing social media clicks more than votes.
Since Brexit, it has struggled to pin down either a political philosophy or a policy platform. Instead, it lurches between various reactionary statements, often disagreeing with itself. It seems to have no real sense of who its target voters are or what they really want. It has continued to stoke concern about a frustrated or stolen Brexit, but struggles to convey the complex policy details this entails when the Tories so cleanly marketed leaving the EU as “done”. Elsewhere, it generally opposed Covid lockdowns and has been sceptical of vaccines — an odd line for populists to take when both measures were widely popular, especially with the older, authoritarian demographic who tended to support Brexit. Equally, the party’s attack on Tory taxes sits uneasily with their likely voters, who tend to favour higher spending. More often than not, Reform gives the impression it is driven by populists who fail to understand what is popular.
The migrant crisis is perhaps where they are closest to the national mood, but still they have failed to translate this into popular success. Farage and co. are happy to film themselves on Dover beaches being outraged by the arriving boats yet have no real suggestions beyond bedding in behind the Government’s Rwanda plan. Even more than the Tories, they seem short of ideas. This has shown through in recent electoral performances. Reform have barely made a dent in any of the recent by-elections. In December last year, Tice took 6% of the vote in Bexley, but that was a big name standing in a heavily Tory seat. This year, candidates have failed to score above 3%, and in Tiverton, a Tory seat lost to the Lib Dems, they racked up fewer than 500 votes.
All this points to the other weakness of Reform: a real lack of ground game. It’s not a mass-member organisation — it lacks local branches and councillors and appears to have minimal central campaigning abilities. Hard work on the doorstep is essential for turning voter intentions into crosses on ballot boxes. It is hard to see how Reform will be able to do this effectively. If they get this wrong, it could be a big get-out-of-jail-free card for the Tories. If they get it right, it could pin down Conservative resources in seats they would normally go easy in.
But this is all a matter for the next election — in the meantime, it remains to be seen whether the Reform surge will hold. It depends on whether Farage and Tice are able to settle on a platform beyond Brexit to sustain it, and whether that appeals to enough people. Reform’s impact also depends on how the Tory Party reacts, and whether they are able to hold their Right flank without ceding more ground in the centre. At best, a resurgent Right-wing populist party will be a diversion for Conservative strategists; at worst, it will be the final part of an electoral encirclement. And looking at the most recent multi-regression polling, released yesterday, an effective showing from Reform might not win seats but could cost the Conservatives dozens.
And yet, it’s probably more likely the threat from the Right will peter out rather than solidify. Reform seems based on unsteady ground and hasn’t found a way to deliver the electoral shock that Ukip and the Brexit Party did before. How it plays out will be the result of both parties’ electoral deftness, but strikingly little to do with Labour.
The entire outcome in 2024 perhaps rests on whom the Tories choose to alienate. All through their time in government, the party has found a way to weave together different narratives, holding together the suburban, settled and affluent — while picking up more precarious voters in the neglected North and Midlands. Now those voters have pulled apart even more, leaving the Conservative Party in the middle.
The Tories appear to be finding a narrative to ride through the country’s increasing divergence between geographies and age cohorts. So far, however, they have failed to find an answer for Britain’s deeper problems. Left-behind regions still feel left behind; many of the voters there do too. For a while, the Conservatives were able to appeal to them, largely through the lens of Brexit. Without that draw, those voters who have been abandoned first by Labour and then by the Tories may yet fall to Reform.
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