July 27, 2023 - 10:00am

Has Britain’s populist Reform UK party finally begun to move the needle? Hidden among the dots in Politico’s Poll of Polls is the fact that support for Reform now stands at 8%, its best showing since the 2019 election and just five points shy of Ukip’s 2015 result. With these numbers, Reform could begin to wield the kind of influence Ukip once did over the Tories’ policy direction.

This could be a blip but, as the graph below shows, Reform’s numbers have steadily climbed, from around 3% in the autumn of 2022 to a steady 5-6% over the past nine months and, in the past week or two, to 8%.

Demand conditions — the rising profile of Reform’s signature issue of immigration — more than Richard Tice’s leadership or Nigel Farage’s banking travails, likely account for the change.

According to YouGov’s immigration opinion tracker, 61% of British voters say immigration is too high, rising to the mid-80s among 2019 Tory voters. This is over twice the level of Labour voters, showing how immigration attitudes have become increasingly partisan since the mid-2010s.

Immigration preferences are rooted in personal psychology and ideology, and have not changed much. What has shifted, however, is the importance restrictionists attach to the immigration question. Record numbers of asylum-seekers crossing the channel and unprecedented legal net migration levels of over 600,000 have resulted in more coverage of the issue in the media.

Numbers and press coverage tend to increase the priority of immigration among those who want less of it. Instead of migration being their fifth or sixth most important concern, it rises to first or second place. The share of voters rating immigration a top-three issue in Ipsos’s Issues Index has doubled since mid-2022.

This rise in concern is particularly evident among Tory supporters, many of them Leavers who voted Conservative for the first time in 2019. In this context, it is noteworthy that YouGov’s leading issues tracker shows nearly six in 10 Tory voters ranking immigration a leading concern, not far off the seven in 10 who did so prior to the Brexit vote. If pressures around the cost of living or NHS were to begin to abate, these numbers could rise further.

But the Tories are not well-placed to harness this discontent. On their watch migration, whether legal or illegal, has soared. The short-term demands of market liberals for economic growth, or lobbyists for more low-cost workers, have triumphed over the longer-term desires of the culturally conservative voters who form the Tory base.

The result is alienation, with many Tories staying away, as was clear in the party’s disastrous results in the recent by-elections. It feels like a reprise of the 2010s, which culminated in Brexit.

So what happens next? A betrayal narrative is well in motion, with many culturally conservative voters feeling that the Tories have failed them on immigration, as was true prior to 2016. Yet, this time, anti-immigration sentiment is unlikely to be diverted toward an elite political project such as the “global Britain” of liberal Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson. Support for Brexit has sagged to an all-time low of 32%. This points to the eventual emergence of a continental-style populism focusing less on political sovereignty and more on cultural security and migration.

Reform may prove the vehicle for this new movement, perhaps under Farage’s tutelage (at least after 2024). On the other hand, the fondness of Tice and Farage for tilting at unpopular libertarian windmills like opposing net zero or lockdowns, or backing Liz Truss’s tin-eared tax cuts, may limit their headroom, offering an opening for a fresher face.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities. He is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.