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Nigel Farage Could Turn Rishi Sunak's Reform Problem Into An Absolute Nightmare

Reform UK president Nigel Farage (Alamy)

6 min read

The possibility of Reform taking crucial votes from the Conservative party at the 2024 general election is already a headache for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, but if Nigel Farage returned to front the party, it would turn into a splitting political migraine. 

Earlier this month, Reform UK leader Richard Tice told PoliticsHome Tory MPs should be "shitting themselves" about the threat his right-wing party poses to their chances of keeping their seats when the country goes to the polls next year.

"The last one was 'get Brexit done', the next will be an immigration election," Tice said.

"Every per cent [which Reform gains in the opinion polls] is devastating for the Tories. You could be looking at a complete collapse in their number of seats," he warned, ominously.

Sunak already has his work cut out trying to avoid what evidence suggests is likely to be a seismic defeat to Keir Starmer's Labour Party at the next general election, which must be called before the end of 2024.

Labour has consistently maintained large, double-digit leads in the polls, which if replicated at the election would see dozens of seats turn from blue to red. The Conservatives are also at risk of losing seats in the traditionally Tory south of England to Ed Davey's Liberal Democrats. Tory strategists already facing a bleak electoral picture are now also worried about a surge in support for Reform meaning they lose further votes to the right. 

Reform, led by pro-Brexit businessman and former member of the European parliament Tice, was created in 2018. Effectively replacing the Farage-led Brexit Party, it was initially a fairly insignificant force in British politics without an obvious raison d'etre following the UK's departure from the European Union. But in recent weeks opinion polls across the board have started to indicate its support is growing. A number of Tory MPs are worried that Reform will capitalise on the government's perceived failure to reduce migration by eroding Conservative party support from the right, helping Labour the Liberal Democrats gain swathes of seats.

While he is currently Reform's honorary president, Farage has rarely used his role to be an active campaigner for the party. However, the former UKIP leader is believed to be mulling returning to a more prominent role in British politics, and there are suggestions that he could even come back to the fray to replace Tice as leader ahead of the next election.

“Reform could have a very significant negative effect on the Conservatives at the next general election," Rachel Wolf, founding partner at consultancy Public First and co-author of the Tories' 2019 general election manifesto, told PoliticsHome.

"How Reform is polling when Nigel Farage is not in charge of it is one thing, but the question is what happens when or if he is." 

Farage, widely regarded as one of the most effective communicators in British politics, has long been a thorn in the side of the Tory party. The threat of losing support to UKIP was a crucial factor in forcing former prime minister David Cameron into holding a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union. As leader of the Brexit Party, he put huge pressure on the Conservative government to deliver a "hard" exit from the bloc, and helped then-PM Boris Johnson win an 80-seat majority at the 2019 general election by standing down candidates in Tory-controlled seats.

According to former No 10 pollster James Johnson, a feeling of "frustration and disenchantment" among 2019 Tory voters with more socially-conservative views could prove to be hugely beneficial to the right-wing Reform party. 

Johnson, who now runs polling firm JL Partners, recalls being in No 10 when a Farage press conference essentially "transformed" the Brexit Party's performance in the opinion polls overnight, and believes that there is no reason why he couldn't have a similar impact on Reform's prospects if he decided to take over. 

“If you’re sat on Reform’s board or you’re a Reform candidate, you want Nigel Farage to be your leader," he told PoliticsHome.

"If you look at how his personal ratings have changed since I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!, he’s now more popular than Rishi Sunak with 2019 Conservative party voters by a margin of 21 points. That’s really quite remarkable.”

Johnson is "bullish" about the impact Reform could have at the next general election. "One of the most striking stats I’ve seen recently is Ipsos MORI's tracker finding trust in politicians at its lowest ever level. In a world like that, you’d expect other parties to do well," he continued. At the beginning of this month, his polling company this month found that 15 per cent of people who voted Conservative at the last general election intended to vote Reform next time around.

But Rob Ford, Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester and expert on the British right-wing, said there are reasons to exercise some scepticism about talk of a Reform surge.

He pointed out that unlike UKIP, which in the years leading up to Brexit was the foremost right-wing, populist party, Reform has not performed well at by-elections and local elections. "That’s very different to UKIP," he explained, "which often outperformed its polling in by-elections and local elections. The surprise was on the upside.

"But with Reform, the party has fallen flat, lost their deposits, it doesn't get the votes."

Reform UK leader Richard Tice

This is also a point made by polling expert Peter Kellner in a piece arguing there was "no clear sign" of a genuine surge for Tice's party.

Writing for Prospect, Kellner highlighted that Reform's average vote share at by-elections held in the last two years had been three per cent, whereas UKIP averaged 25 per cent across five by-elections held in 2013 and 2014, at around the same point in the electoral cycle.

A litmus test of Reform's support potentially awaits in Blackpool South. A by-election may soon take place in this coastal seat in the northwest of England if the House of Commons standard committee's recommendation that Conservative MP Scott Benton be suspended for 35-days triggers a recall petition. The area delivered one of the highest Leave votes in the country at the 2016 referendum (67.5 per cent), and at the 2015 general election Farage's UKIP won over 17 per cent of the vote. It is the sort of constituency where Reform ought to do well. 

While opinions may vary on where Reform finds itself under Tice's leadership, one thing that virtually everyone agrees on is that the return of Farage to the frontline of British politics would be a game changer for Reform and the stuff of nightmares for Conservative MPs.

“If I were trying to think of the worst thing that could possibly happen for Tory MPs in the next six months, it probably is that Nigel Farage would return," polling veteran Sir John Curtice recently told Times Radio.

Due to the UK's first past the post electoral system, it is highly unlikely that an even a Farage-led, strong Reform performance at the general next election would result in the party winning any seats. In 2015, UKIP won nearly 13 per cent of the national vote but just one House of Commons seat — and that was an MP in Douglas Carswell who had defected from the Tories.

But by winning over a significant number of voters who previously backed the Conservatives, Reform would make it even more difficult for Sunak's already-beleaguered Tories to stop large numbers of seats falling in the hands of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Put another way, it would be a Tory electoral nightmare.

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