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Right Wing Tories Dare Rishi Sunak To "Fish" In Reform's "Pond"

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to Dover (Alamy)

5 min read

Rishi Sunak remains under pressure to move further to the right in order to stem the leak of votes to Reform UK, and it looks likely to intensify with the polling gulf between the Conservatives and Labour as wide as ever.

 

One former secretary of state complained that the party needs to behave as a "Conservative government, rather than a social democratic government pretending to be a Conservative government" if they want to protect their right wing vote share.

“The reason people are going to Reform is because they think we are not doing conservative things and by and large, Conservative voters expect a Conservative government to do conservative things," the disgruntled Tory MP told PoliticsHome.

"There is no purpose in trying to fish in Labour’s pond. We should be looking at our own constituency."

The Conservatives lost almost half of the council seats they were contesting and West Midlands mayor Andy Street in the recent local elections, triggering the latest battle for the soul of the party. That they also lost a parliamentary by-election with a historic swing to Labour on the same day added a fly in the already noxious ointment.

While the Conservatives are shedding votes in all directions, it's the support they're losing to the right that appears to have fired up MPs the most. JL Partners' latest voter intention poll found that 20 per cent of people who voted for the Conservatives at the 2019 general election intend to support Reform UK at the next election, while 18 per cent plan to switch to Labour. Five per cent intend to shift from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats.

As a result there are increasing calls for Sunak to prioritise shoring up his policy offering for the right, including leaving the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) as a way of enabling a harder stance on migration. 

Robert Jenrick, the former immigration minister, has become one of the most vocal public proponents of this view. Since quitting his Government role at the Home Office last year, he has repeatedly accused Sunak of not being "Conservative" enough on issues like migration, and had repeatedly criticised the Prime Minister's Rwanda deportation plans as too lenient towards people trying to claim asylum in the UK.

This week, the MP for Newark — who many of his Conservative colleagues believe is positioning for a future leadership bid — told Sky News "we have to ensure that as many Reform votes as possible come back to the Conservative Party in the weeks ahead", and described curtailing immigration as the "most important" way of doing it.

His views are shared by former home secretary Suella Braverman, former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke, and other MPs in the right-wing of the parliamentary Conservative party.

The fear among this section of the party is that while Reform UK is very unlikely to win a seat at the next general election, which Sunak must call before the end of the year, a split of the right wing vote will help Labour win in numerous marginal seats.

But there remains concern, even among some right wing Tories, that attempts to outdo Reform could not only prove futile, but also make them even more unelectable.

One backbencher who described themselves as "very right wing" on economic issues said they were uneasy about trying to outbid Reform on immigration and reducing illegal small boat crossings, and argued that the best way to claw back 2019 Tory voters was through lower taxes and a smaller state.

“A lot of Reform voters will say the answer [on small boats] is to machine gun them. If you want to chase that vote, then yes you might get that vote. But you’ll get 5 per cent of the overall vote," they told PoliticsHome.

More moderate MPs in the One Nation wing of the party feel this concern acutely, and have long argued that by lurching further to the right, the Conservative party will only minimise its broader appeal. 

Justine Greening, the centrist former education secretary, observed in The Guardian that "the more Sunak has danced to the Reform-lite political tune, the worse the party has done in the polls".

Greening, who left the House of Commons in 2019, echoed the discomfort of many Tory MPs who fear that by prioritising the threat posed by Reform, the Conservative party risks drifting further towards its ideological fringes. 

"The madness is that when it comes to the national picture, the party finds itself battling for a small pool of voters with the third-placed party, Reform, while abandoning and alienating many more in the centre ground of British politics to Labour, which is first place by a wide margin," she wrote.

Luke Tryl, UK Director at More In Common, told PoliticsHome there were a number of reasons why the Tories should be wary of focusing too much on the threat posed by Reform UK. 

“It is difficult to see how there is a workable, specific strategy for dealing with Reform that doesn’t bring it with a whole host of other problems for the Conservative party," he said.

According to Tryl, his organisation's research shows people who have ditched the Tories for Reform since the last general election have a "deep disdain" for the Conservative party and will be difficult for Sunak to win back even if he takes up more right-wing positions.

He added that by focusing too much on the issue of migration, the Tories risk "drowning out" issues which matter more to the wider electorate, like the cost of living, while also distracting from relatively stronger parts of Sunak's message like the economy, pointing to the news on Friday that the economy grew up 0.6 per cent in the first quarter of the year.

"The economy remains the strongest string in the Tory bow heading into the general election," Tryl added.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, this week argued in The House that across Europe, centre-right parties like the UK Conservatives have tried to kill support for right-wing challengers by "ramping up the rhetoric and ratcheting up the policies". However, Bale wrote, instead they have inadvertently fed their momentum by raising the salience of issues that their supporters care about the most, like illegal migration.

But these arguments are showing little sign of dissuading an increasingly restless chunk of the parliamentary Conservative party, who staring likely defeat in the face, are convinced that the strongest electoral hand they have lies in playing more right-wing cards. 

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