Most of the Tories’ worst fears appear to have materialised in the local elections: Labour has made inroads in the North, while the Lib Dems have knocked bricks out the Blue Wall in the shires. Yet one glimmer of hope remains for Rishi Sunak: the failed performance of their rivals on the Right.
Since he entered No. 10, there have been repeated warnings that Sunak might be vulnerable from an insurgent Right clamouring about Brexit, small boats and other issues. That hasn’t translated into votes. Ukip is now a spent force, losing all its remaining councillors. Reform UK appears to have won nothing.
This confirms the most serious problems facing the Right. Firstly, since Brexit they have failed to assemble an arresting narrative. Voters are often uninterested in the intricacies of leaving the EU, and discussion around the deal and the Protocol has not translated into votes. Beyond that, Reform has failed to find a popular platform.
The party has leant heavily into lockdown scepticism, despite the overwhelming evidence that the measures were and remain, rightly or wrongly, popular with the country. Indeed, as pro-Brexit voters tend to be older and more authoritarian than average, it is a particularly poor message to court the same coalition. Equally, the party has failed to echo the high-spending populist economics that drove a significant chunk of Brexit support.
Beyond that, Reform seems to have failed to develop the ground game necessary to capitalise on its support. Elections are won through graft on the doorstep, finding your voters and getting them to turn out. That takes organisation, dedication and manpower. So far, there has been little evidence that the party has managed to amass any of these.
Looking ahead to the general election, the insurgent Right won’t be able to pull off any upsets unless they sort out their priorities. While their prominence in the air war of TV, social media and the press might drive up their national support, unless this is both concentrated and marshalled well, they won’t win any seats. Ukip at its height could never manage that — and Reform seems even further behind.
More worryingly for the smaller parties, failure to register any electoral success could see them crushed between the mainstream. As it becomes evident that they are incapable of winning, their attraction as anything more than a protest vote diminishes. If those on the Right think a vote for Reform will cost the Tories and empower Starmer, they may stick with Sunak. Equally, Labour-leaning Brexiteers might return to the fold if it gets the Tories out.
The British system makes it very difficult to establish an insurgent party. This will be of little comfort to Sunak today — but the new kids on the electoral block failing to convert attention to votes could save the Tories seats on a bad night in the general election.