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Why Reform won’t take over the Tories

Milking it. Credit: Getty

June 6, 2024 - 7:00am

With the Conservative Party’s electoral fortunes plunging to ever-lower depths, Nigel Farage and even some commentators have argued that Reform UK can take over or even replace the Conservatives by the 2029 general election. Sadly for Farage, that appears very unlikely.

The opinion polls, while ghastly for the Conservatives, do not suggest the party faces an existential threat. For example, this week’s well-publicised YouGov MRP poll, which projected the Conservatives to win 140 seats, suggests they would still be the second-largest party in the House of Commons by some margin. And even if we believe the very worst opinion polls and the Conservatives are reduced to third place in the Commons behind the Liberal Democrats, they will still be comfortably the largest right-of-centre force in Parliament.

In contrast, by Farage’s own admission, even if he wins in Clacton it is very difficult to see Reform capturing more than a tiny number of seats. The problem is that the party’s vote is too evenly spread across the country. Hence, despite winning 12% of the vote at the May local elections, Reform only picked up just two council seats — and those are much easier to target than Parliamentary constituencies due to their smaller size.

Reform’s electoral predicament is hardly unusual for a new party trying to break through in the UK electoral system, and the precedent is less than encouraging. For example, part of the reason why the UK Liberal/Social Democratic Alliance performed so disappointingly at the 1983 election, winning only 23 seats despite securing 25.4% of the vote, was that such a new grouping lacked the constituency roots that Labour and the Conservatives enjoyed. Only after years of tirelessly cultivating local support did the newly merged Liberal Democrats become, for a time, a serious parliamentary force. By this time, however, the party it had hoped to replace — Labour — had recovered.

All this greatly complicates Farage’s hopes of emulating the success of the Reform Party of Canada, which merged with and effectively took over the more moderate Progressive Conservative Party, which in turn never recovered from its annihilation at the 1993 general election. At that election, the Reform Party won 52 lower house seats to the Progressive Conservatives’ two. Unless Reform UK can show at least a realistic prospect of matching the Tories in terms of seats, it is difficult to see how it could take over, let alone replace, its self-identified rival.

The only historical example of a major party being replaced involved Labour displacing the Liberals as the dominant force on the centre-left after the First World War. Labour could only do this because, through the union movement, it had access to the campaign infrastructure necessary to capitalise on Liberal weakness. Reform, however, cannot piggyback off any movement as organised as the unions.

Far from a Reform Canada-style takeover of the Conservative Party, it is more likely that Reform UK will become, at best, a small Parliamentary group. Lacking the resources and media exposure available to the official Opposition, or even to a third party, it will struggle to maintain the political momentum necessary to become a major player in UK politics.

Like so many predictions of political realignment before, this one too is likely to fizzle out.


Will Prescott is a senior researcher at Bright Blue.

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Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
19 days ago

If Reform tip over the Tory polling %, and/or get more than 5 tory deflectors, all bets are off.

Really we have 3 parties. A centrist uniparty of Starmer and Hunt and their ilk, a left wing party of Corbynist Citizen Smiths, and a right wing party of Faragists. But that isn’t the alignment we have.

Such an alignment would much better reflect the voting public. Not sure how it could be achieved but certainly at the moment it is only the right who are entirely disenfranchised.

j watson
j watson
19 days ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

Showing your age there IM with the Citizen Smith reference. Might be lost on a few but brought a smile. Oh for those days.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
19 days ago
Reply to  j watson

FREEDOM FOR TOOTING!

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
19 days ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

‘Not sure how it could be achieved but certainly at the moment it is only the right who are entirely disenfranchised.’

It’s funny but I’ve always thought the opposite – it’s the left that tends to disenfranchise itself in the UK – if Labour/Lib dems/Greens/snp etc forgot their difference we’d be much more likely to have left of centre governments.

The Conservatives on the other hand have I feel traditionallly benefitted from being the single default option on the right.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
17 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

“The Conservatives on the other hand have I feel traditionally benefited from being the single default option on the right.”

Quoth the raven, “Never more.”

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago

Reform should do a deal with the Tories this week. Conservatives should stand down in constituencies that Reform have a chance of winning and a capable candidate in place. Likewise, Reform should stand down wherever the Conservatives have a chance of winning.
They should commit to working in some sort of coalition if they get enough seats to govern between them and to a shared manifesto (which shouldn’t be hard to do looking at the pronouncements made so far by both parties).
According to YouGov yesterday this would equate to a combined poll number of 36% compared to 40% Labour. The excitement around the deal might be enough to bring in the 2019 Tory Don’t Knows.
If they win the election, then Sunak stays on as PM, Farage to be deputy PM. A certain number of cabinet places would be reserved for Lee Anderson, Ben Habib, Richard Tice etc. Similar to the 2010 coalition but this time with a right-wing rather than a left-wing partner.
If they lose, then they would be in the same position as they will be in 30 days time but with a smaller Labour majority and more seats for Reform.
The only question is whether some 2019 Tory voters would be put off by the deal. I suspect the number that would be is much smaller than those that would vote for the pact.
Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, the stars of GB News, could broker the deal pretty quickly.

Rob Mein
Rob Mein
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

“Sunak stays on as PM” I detect a slighty problem with your theory.

Hugh Thornton
Hugh Thornton
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Maybe at the next election in 2029. Reform would suffer by colluding with Conservatives at this election because the Tories are so disliked. Grit your teeth and accept we are going to have 5 years of hard labour.

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Thornton

5 years of hard Labour – I like it.
Yes you are right – nothing for it but to grin and bear it.

j watson
j watson
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Don’t ‘grin and bear it’. More broadly the Right should go away and really think through what’s gone wrong, and not just on migration and the failure to invest in UK training etc so we don’t need migrant labour, but also what’s really wrong with UK capitalism. Said it before but the answers lie in interrogating things like why only 2% of UK pension funds invested here starving UK Businesses of investment, and why things like Thames water implosion can happen. There are right wing conclusions and new ways of addressing these sort of things to be had I’m sure, but all this nonsense about Farage, who’s just an amplifier of rage and offers no practical solutions, missing the point entirely. We need an intelligent, reflective right. Not a child petulantly refusing to accept they’ve some lessons to really go away and reflect on.

Rob N
Rob N
17 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Thornton

I agree but worry that in 5 years there won’t be much left of Britain to save. It will, like a certain parrot, have ceased to be.

j watson
j watson
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Alice in Wonderland stuff there MM. And then they all jetted off arm in arm on holiday together to Mar-a-Lago
Maybe Starmer/Davey do the same and cobbler the Sunak/Farage dream pact?
Neither will happen.

j watson
j watson
19 days ago

It’s no great surprise that the Right will now contrive to be divided and turn in against itself. This been gradually building since Thatcher. The Brexiteers thought they’d won until that nonsense unravelled, as predicted, and hence the fratricide continues.
The Centre/Centre Left been divided for decades which is why the predominant party of Govt has been Tory – two thirds of the time since 1970 – bear that in mind when you rage about the state of the Nation.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
19 days ago
Reply to  j watson

The Left/Right divide you refer to doesn’t exist in the form you think, I’m afraid. In terms of class interest the divide is between property owners and rent payers and wage earners. Both major parties cater for the property owners, without whose votes they cannot govern, and therefore pursue policies – such as mass immigration – which enrich them at the expense of the wage earners and rent payers.

The ideological rationales that middle class leftists put forward are just affectation. Look what happened when Theresa May suggested that some of their ÂŁ5-7 trillions of unearned property wealth might be used to pay for social care. The loudest howls of outrage came from the Guardian and she came close to losing to the dopiest opposition leader this country has ever produced.

j watson
j watson
19 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Your conversion to fairy standard Marxian conclusion continues HB. Impressive. You rage at the Petit Bourgeois as much as Lenin did.
On the Guardian raging more about a ‘death tax’ to pay for social care, I think you know it was the classic Mail reader who got most worked up. But regardless we’re on the same page – it should happen. And I’d tax the unearned wealth of the v rich much more too. See you soon on another topic Comrade.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
17 days ago
Reply to  j watson

“And I’d tax the unearned wealth of the v rich much more too.”

Yes, that will work. I don’t think it’s been tried before. But you’ll have to hurry to catch them on their way to the airport.

Hugh Thornton
Hugh Thornton
19 days ago

On the other hand, if Reform get a large share of the public vote, more disaffected Tory voters will see that it will not be a wasted vote to support Reform next time round. We cannot gauge anything from the polls because there are likely to be last minute switches of voting intention. We will just have to assess the situation on July 5th and then see how Reform MPs perform. If all goes well, I am sure many ousted conservative Conservative MPs will switch to support Reform if the new leader fails to move the party to the right. In brief, any prediction is a waste of time.

j watson
j watson
19 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Thornton

How Reform MPs might perform? Have you heard some of these clowns when they actually get properly interviewed, and esp when they have to move onto subjects beyond immigration? Car crash stuff.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
18 days ago
Reply to  j watson

No more so than listening to the likes of Lammy, Abbott, Rayner (the henna haired harpie), Thornberry . . . take your pick if car crashes are your spectator sport of choice.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
17 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Well, if the Tories hadn’t spent the last 14 years letting conservative voters down, the latter wouldn’t be attracted to Reform now.

One finds solace and hope where one can. Whatever the failings of Reform, they seem to be the *only* genuinely Right-wing party available.

William Amos
William Amos
19 days ago

There is no top down solution. Conservative minded folk have been looking for a White Knight or Deus ex Machina to lay a sublime hand to the machinery of government and bring about the counter-revolution for as long as I’ve been politically aware. It’s not going to happen.
The only reform or (Reform, if you will) possible is slow, laboured, inglorious, ill rewarded and open-ended. It involves firstly total personal reform. Of manners, behaviour, conduct, thought and speech. In the public sphere it then involves a total reengagement with the remnants of our civil society. Standing for school governorships, as a magistrate, in any and all local representative bodies. Attend worship locally, engage with your neighbours avoiding controversy and scandal, working quietly and efficiently wherever possible, to turn back the dial inch by inch.
It involves finding a spouse having children in a loving home and bringing them up right. It involves stewarding personal wealth and donating time, energy and money to respectable and worthwhile ends – and only these ends. Walk while ye have the light, brethren.
In effect it is what Christ spoke to us through Paul in Ephesians 5 –
“Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.”
The left has had a 30 or 40 year headstart but the only way up from Avernus is long and arduous indeed. This is the project Petrarch set himself to undertake that initiated the Renaissance. There are no shortcuts.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
19 days ago
Reply to  William Amos

Some useful thoughts, but leave the religion out of it. The Ayaan Hirsi Ali route simply won’t work – the entire edifice is a busted flush, with only those unable to think beyond the religious mindset still embroiled and (in some cases) proselytising.
The Renaissance is indeed a fine example to follow. If one just takes the visual arts, it started with almost exclusively religious iconography and ended with the move towards a greater depiction and understanding of our human nature without the religious veil, and then on to the Enlightenment.

Rob N
Rob N
17 days ago
Reply to  William Amos

Some good points there. I am trying to stand as a school Governor but the admin team are trying to block my inclusion by delaying. Similarly I would try to become a magistrate but I am obviously unsuitable – I am, after all, a white middle aged man (and hetero!).

Adam Huntley
Adam Huntley
19 days ago

I see no reason why we do not allow each voter the freedom to vote for any declared candidate rather than being obliged to choose those in the constituency they live in. At a stroke, minority parties would have a realistic chance of winning seats. To represent their popularity in the UK they would put up the number of candidates which reflected this percentage. Neither would there be tactical voting. If you felt your choice of party candidate had no chance where you live, you could vote for one in a neighbouring marginal.

Ben Jones
Ben Jones
19 days ago

‘Will Prescott is a senior researcher at Bright Blue.’
Which means dripping wet Lib / Dem / Tory. You keep re-arranging those deckchairs, Will. That definitely isn’t an iceberg. *chuckles*

Mike Fraser
Mike Fraser
17 days ago
Reply to  Ben Jones

My first thought also. “Senior Researcher”?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
18 days ago

Reform could take over the Conservatives by forcing the Conservatives further to the right and thus shaping their policies.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
18 days ago

Well that depends on whether the system can withstand a result which sees Reform, and maybe other parties, achieving very significant percentages of the vote but having almost no seats. I think that is Farage’s strategy – to become a promoter of electoral reform after the GE, with the authority of say 18% of the vote share behind him. The irony is that one of the beneficiaries of that reform would be an explicitly Muslim party, which would probably pick up about 4% of the vote and get some MP’s in a PR election.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
18 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

18%!!!
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a comedian among us!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
18 days ago

The country is facing multiple headwinds and the Reform party and its candidates are woefully ill-equipped to navigate the challenge. Except for confronting immigration, and a sensible revision to the income tax thresholds the party lacks credible policies.
A vote for Reform is no more than a protest vote for now. No sign that they have what it takes to deliver. A lot of work needs to be done and they need to start building a track record otherwise it will be more disappointment and dismay.