Can the Tories tackle the latest Revolt on the Right?

Michael Dowsett, Associate Director

Ten days out from the general election, the most interesting polling story of the campaign has surely been the rise of Reform UK. From an average of 12% in Politico’s ‘Poll of Polls’ on the day of Nigel Farage’s return as leader to 16% today, some surveys are putting the party level with or even ahead of the Conservatives.

Reform’s success holds out the prospect of a defeat for the Conservatives even worse than 1997, and leads to questions about how a deeply fractured right can be brought together in opposition. Even after their first defeat at the hands of New Labour, the one advantage the Conservatives had in opposition was the lack of a viable threat on their Right flank, something that didn’t emerge until the rise of UKIP during the Coalition years.

The threat now is surely greater, and not just because of Reform’s rise in the polls and the proximity to a general election. The success of the Conservatives in winning over socially conservative, pro-Brexit voters from Labour and UKIP in 2017 and 2019 means that Reform now almost exclusively draws its support from former Tory backers.

With the general election looking lost, many in the party – including prospective leadership contenders – are already starting to grapple with how the Conservatives can put their shattered electoral coalition back together. On the face of it, history offers some encouragement for the Conservatives. From polling an average of 17% on the eve of the EU referendum, UKIP scored less than 2% at the general election held twelve months later. An even starker turnaround happened in 2019, with the Brexit Party going from an average of 22% in Westminster polling in June to 2% at that December’s general election.

What changed in each case was the Conservatives moving policy position to meet the key demand of first UKIP and later Reform voters: namely honouring the referendum decision to leave the EU, and then deliver it ‘come what may’ amidst Parliamentary gridlock. Both shifts also coincided with a change of party leader – something that seems inevitable anyway after 4th July.  

Is there a similar move the party could reach for this time around, albeit in opposition? Research released this month by Electoral Calculus and Find Out Now found 72% of Conservative defectors to Reform UK citing the government’s failure to control immigration as a reason (compared to 44% for all defectors from the Conservatives). Could then a pledge to move closer to Reform’s position on immigration – both legal and illegal – similarly work as a ‘silver bullet’?

I’m sceptical. Even if the Conservatives believe that this is the right policy both electorally as part of a platform that will eventually ‘re-unite the right’, as well as for the country as a whole, it’s doubtful whether the voters will be in a rush to listen to a rump Conservative Party for a while after 4th July, or if they do would be inclined to believe they would (finally) deliver on their promises if returned to government.

A deal which brings Nigel Farage into the Party may provide the kind of ‘electric shock’ moment that convinces Reform voters the Conservatives are taking their concerns seriously, but would surely be accompanied by significant division within what remains of the Parliamentary party and between MPs and the grassroots, providing a reminder of the chaos and factionalism which sits alongside a failure of delivery as key causes of the Conservatives’ current plight. Such a scenario now looks much more unlikely that it did a few weeks ago, not least given the Reform Leader’s comments about the war in Ukraine.

Perhaps then the Conservatives will have to rely on the mistakes of their opponents to give them a route back to dominating the centre right and having a chance of returning to power. After all, both David Cameron’s victory in 2010 and Keir Starmer’s forthcoming triumph arguably owe at least as much to the failures of the incumbent government than to the changes made to their own parties.

Whether it’s a repeat of the infighting that has characteristic previous Farage-led parties, and / or a Labour government’s failure pushing voters back to the Conservatives, one can see how this scenario plays out in the context of widespread disillusionment among the electorate.

The prerequisite though is ensuring that the Party is in a position after the final couple of weeks of campaigning to take advantage of their opponents’ mistakes, and remains viable as a national force. Otherwise, expect the Conservative view on proportional representation to start to shift in the next Parliament as an alternative to successive Labour landslides enabled by a badly split Right and the unforgiving nature of First Past The Post.  

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