Rishi Sunak risks making this the Reform UK election

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So much of how this election is unfolding is being dictated, not by Tory-Labour tussling, but by the dynamic between the Conservatives — one of the oldest political parties in the world seeking a fifth successive election victory — and Reform UK, the re-styled Brexit Party which only received official approval for its name change on 4th January 2021.

In fact, Rishi Sunak’s very decision to call an early poll for 4th July coincided with two significant Reform developments: (1) after the local elections, Richard Tice’s party slipped discernibly in the polls, improving the Conservatives’ prospects; and, (2), Reform’s honorary president, Nigel Farage, was preparing the ground for a fully-fledged return to frontline politics, perhaps as the candidate for then-vacant seat of Boston and Skegness (the most pro-Brexit constituency in the country since occupied by Tice).

The Tories, one reading runs, caught wind of Farage’s sly machinations and jolted. Indeed, speaking in his first major campaign event of the election today, the Reform president admitted he had been struck off-guard by Sunak. The Conservatives, as you might expect, have viewed Farage’s apparent feebleness as a rare win.

Also last week, Politics.co.uk peered under the bonnet of Reform UK to search for any candidate curiosities. (Fair to say, we found some). From the party’s MP wannabes, however — few of which possess anything resembling national name recognition — one can learn a great deal about the party’s apparent appeal. Indeed, while so much mystery surrounds the upstart party, the one clear common thread was this: Reform’s rank and file despises the Conservatives. As I have written before, many of its voters likely feel the same.

These observations would appear to problematise Rishi Sunak’s election strategy at this stage: namely, to diminish Reform’s standing by bringing backthe party’s stolen voters. Along these lines, a leaked memo containing internal Tory polling, seen by Bloomberg, suggests the Conservatives could lose more than 100 seats due to a Reform spoiler insurgency this election. These figures, suffice it to say, have got Sunak’s CCHQ strategists quivering; and the conclusions therein drawn are now driving the PM’s campaign focus.

The bottom line is that Sunak is right to be scared. Reform is not like UKIP c. 2010-2015, in the sense that Farage’s former party derived a large share of its support from aggrieved Labour voters. Rather, Reform’s base is almost entirely ex-Conservatives, unhappy (an understatement) about the direction the party has taken in recent years. The threat Reform poses after 14 years of Conservative government is, therefore, broader and less perishable than that of single issue party UKIP. Tellingly, both Tice and Farage have declared their intention to “destroy” the Conservative Party — as opposed to merely moulding its political outlook or forcing an issue up its agenda.

Still, it is in these terms that the Conservative Party’s recent policy blitz makes the most sense. The idea to bring back national service, plainly, is aimed at nationalistic, older voters who could be considering swinging to Reform at the election; and the announcement yesterday evening, that the Conservatives will offer a tax cut to pensioners with a new “triple lock plus”, serves a similar purpose. It’s all about shoring up the party’s core vote and protecting it from Reform’s rearguard attacks.

Of course, not so long ago, there was a time when many Conservatives mused openly about welcoming Farage to their party — or even conjoining Britain’s main right-wing outfits through some kind of electoral pact. Such murmurs, however, will have been put entirely to rest by Farage’s appearance in Dover today; the former Brexit Party chieftain’s rhetoric has never been so fiery — or controversial.

“The frontline of the great national debate on immigration, both illegal and legal”, Farage counselled, adding that Rishi Sunak — despite the PM’s protestations over national service and pensions policy, “looks more like a frightened rabbit than someone who is ‘bold’.”

Taking further aim at the Tories, Farage insisted he is “absolutely convinced” the reason Sunak called an early election was that planes would not take off for Rwanda in July. In turn, he called on Britain to leave the European Convention of Human Rights: “We must leave the ECHR if we want to have sovereignty over our borders. It’s just as simple as that.”

He also suggested that a “small but worryingly large growing number of predominantly young men in this country” hold “not just un-British but views that are frankly increasingly anti-British”.

Asked later in the press conferences’s Q&A portion whether he wanted to destroy the Tories, he said: “They’ve destroyed themselves already, they don’t need my help. What Conservative Party? Is there a Conservative Party? I haven’t spotted it.”

Directly addressing the electorate, he continued: “Given you know Labour are going to win, why not vote for something you actually believe in?”

Nigel Farage, with this comment, placed his finger squarely on the question that has Conservatives up and down the country quaking. It is well understood that many voters plan to punish the Tory party this election for what they perceive as egregious failure on migration, both illegal and legal. Accordingly, with a Labour victory now viewed as inevitable by many, why not vote purely on principle? That’s assuming these hypothetical Reform voters aren’t already subscribed to the party’s plan to ensure the Conservatives’ destruction.

Sunak’s national service and pensions announcements may win back some remaining “don’t knows”, therefore; but I doubt that they will feature at the expense of Reform. Support for Richard Tice’s party at this election, in this way, is far stickier than any poll UKIP contested, even at its height through 2014 to 2015. It seems seriously unlikely that Sunak’s pitch to the UK right, based on national service (a non-priority, low salience policy) and pensions, will make up for his alleged “betrayal” on migration.

Now, before you read the below piece on election candidate selection, (another area causing concern for the Conservatives), here are a few more reasons why Sunak should shudder at the thought of Reform:

  • Successive Conservative PMs have struggled to handle Farage, even at the best of times
  • After years of campaigning, Farage has honed his skills — and remains entirely irreconcilable to the Conservative Party (dream on Rees-Mogg)
  • By not standing in a constituency, Farage can campaign up and down the country, maximising Reform’s spoiler effect
  • With Labour widely assumed to win the election, a vote for Reform is not viewed, in and of itself, as enabling a Starmer landslide

And, above all, by competing with Reform so openly, Rishi Sunak may merely be playing into Farage’s hands. Reform’s post-local elections poll dip came after weeks of media focus on Conservative-Labour competition. With an election now underway, and Reform-Tory tussling once again in the spotlight (thanks to Sunak’s early focus), there are already signs that Reform’s post-locals dip has reversed.

In the end, Rishi Sunak has made taking on Reform his core election focus at this still early stage — in fact, the whole raison d’être surrounding a summer election seems to have been based on minimising Farage’s influence. But it’s a tussle the prime minister looks destined to lose. Indeed, consider for a moment what a triumph over Farage and Reform would look like. Sunak’s is a strategy, versus Reform and in the election broadly, designed to minimalise losses rather than plan for victory.

Presumedly, Sunak will later pivot to Starmer as the campaign progresses. But with the gaffes piling up and Sunak already bruised by his fracas with Farage, any such shift could come too late to alter the narrative in a meaningful sense.

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