A growing disillusion among Leave voters works in his favour
When Nigel Farage decided to rechristen the Brexit Party as Reform UK in January 2021, many people saw this as a rare error from a canny political strategist and campaigner. In one sweep, his nascent party appeared to lose its branding, its raison d’être and — in March 2021 — its leader, when Farage himself stepped down.
That decision does not look so foolish today. Polling from Focaldata for UnHerd this week, the most detailed since 2019, shows how most of the country now believes it was wrong to leave the EU. Based on the findings, we see that ‘Bregret’ has risen faster among older voters and in many of the poorer areas that voted to leave in 2016. Perhaps more interesting, though, is the large minority, 29%, of Reform UK supporters now saying that Britain was wrong to leave the EU.
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This change in attitude to Brexit is significant, and encompasses voters from Hartlepool to Clacton where Reform UK and its antecedents have long prospered. In June 2016, 5% of UKIP voters voted to remain in the EU, but today, nearly one in three Brexit Party/Reform UK supporters expressed at least some Bregret. This is a noteworthy shift in the nature of support for the party to the Conservatives’ Right.
The idea that the general gloom and doom surrounding Brexit provides ripe conditions for Farage, Mr Brexit himself, to re-enter the political fray is counter-intuitive. Yet there remains a broad expectation in Westminster that Rishi Sunak should be very worried by the possibility of a surge for Reform UK. The rump of voters that are keeping the Conservative Party (just about) still in the game are much older and more concerned about high tax rates than the 2019 coalition the party held together.
If Sunak loses those voters who remain in the fold, it could mean a wipe-out for the Tories. That hypothetical risk could become an existential danger if Farage — who is, by the way, two years younger than Keir Starmer — really does decide 2023 is the year for his third and final act in British politics.
Key to how Farage might navigate this new terrain is that, while the referendum used to be the great divider in British politics, the idea that the result has not delivered what was initially promised now appears to be something approaching a consensus. A very British sense of disillusion that unites those who think Brexit was a terrible idea to begin with, and those who think it was a great idea executed badly. In turn, this could lay the groundwork for a Reform UK general election campaign: a populist appeal to get a grip on illegal immigration, reduce unspecified regulation and lower taxes. Brexit without the Brexit, in other words.
It is worth remembering that what first attracted a significant swathe of the population to UKIP a decade ago was not necessarily the desire to leave the EU. Instead, it was a prevailing sense that the country was going in the wrong direction, and that a corrupted and clueless political class had no way to change course. It is notable that the party’s comprehensive policy statement this month did not contain the B-word at all.
The success of this is made more, not less, likely by the sense of decay around the Tory Party — one symptom of which is this new polling on ‘Bregret’. So depending on your point of view, this is either a story of admirable opportunism or dark irony: Nigel Farage and Reform UK ending up as among the few participants on the political stage to profit from a collapse in confidence in the Brexit project.