Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Sunak’s moment of maximum danger may still await — the Reform-Conservative crossover

A bruising few weeks for the government ends, inevitably, with an uneasy truce. Slowly the speculation about Conservative coups, plots and putsches has subsided. Predictably, the rebels’ latest gambit, to tempt party moderates with the prospect of a Penny Mordaunt premiership, melted upon contact with reality. 

So it was left to Rishi Sunak at the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers on Wednesday to conjure a renewed sense of unity and purpose. The prime minister reportedly told MPs that he was “angry” at the impact plots were having on his political fortunes. He remains determined, subsequent briefings suggested, not to let a minority tendency hijack his government. 

But Conservative MPs were soon reminded of the brutal political reality their furious table-banging was intended to drown out. On Thursday morning a new YouGov poll dropped, revealing once more the extent of the Conservatives’ malaise. Rishi Sunak’s party had fallen by one point to a parlous 19 per cent of the national vote share, placing it 25 points behind Labour — which held strong on 44 per cent. 

The big story of the poll, however, was Reform UK’s latest best-yet rating: the restyled Brexit Party clocked in on 15 per cent, a mere four points behind the Conservatives.

This headline fact is traumatic enough for those of a pro-Sunak persuasion. But consider also the underlying data: Reform is ahead of the Conservative Party in the North (by 18 per cent to 17 per cent). The party also leads the Tories among men, beats both Labour and the Conservatives among “leave” voters in the 2016 EU referendum, and is only two points behind the Rishi Sunak’s party in England (17 per cent to 19 per cent).

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The data paints a picture of genuine political carnage. 

The reaction emanating from Conservative ranks was therefore predictable — and immediate. “The Party leadership may or may not have a plan”, ex-chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost lamented. “[But] what is clear is that the current strategy is not working and that the situation is getting worse not better”.

The nature of the Faragist beast

Step back, and the threat Reform poses to Rishi Sunak is of a very different nature to that which former PM David Cameron faced in the form of UKIP from 2010-2015. Then, under a fresh Conservative-led government, UKIP leader Nigel Farage campaigned zealously on a single issue: that of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. He picked up many a disgruntled Tory along the way — including a couple of MPs.

The threat the Reform party poses, after 14 years of Conservative government, is at once broader and less perishable. Richard Tice’s party, unlike UKIP, has no clearly discernible single issue; instead, Reform higher-ups have deftly styled the party as a receptacle for those professing all manner of grievances, albeit typically and loosely directed at the “establishment”. In so doing, Tice has declared his intention to “destroy” the Conservative Party — rather than merely mould its political outlook or force an issue up its agenda. 

Of course, we can’t treat Reform voters as a monolith or conclude reductively that its voter base has internalised Tice’s rhetoric. However, given that Reform’s raison d’être is strikingly different to that of UKIP, and that it features in an era of clear Conservative decline, it follows that support for the party is stickier. 

As such, YouGov’s polling suggests Conservative voters may be slipping into the Reform receptacle with relative ease. But these voters may be rather less elastic in their behaviour when it comes to the journey back from Reform to the Conservatives. The Rubicon, for some voters at least, is crossed as soon as their preference for Reform has actualised. They are then signed up to Tice’s Conservative demolition project.  

In this way, the trends underlying YouGov’s data, viewed together with the surrounding context, strongly support Frost’s conclusion that “the situation is getting worse”. But how much worse — and how long can we expect these trends to continue? 

Reform-Conservative crossover: a genuine possibility?

First, let’s acknowledge the caveats and, in turn, the optimistic picture for those of a Conservative persuasion. As things stand, YouGov is only the second pollster to place Rishi Sunak’s party below 20 per cent of the national vote share — the other is People Polling, which has hitherto been treated as an outlier. At the other end of the spectrum, Survation and Savanta place the Conservatives on 26 per cent. And Opinium, WeThink, BMG and More in Common place Rishi Sunak’s party on 25 per cent.

On top of this, Reform ploughed significant resource into the recent Wellingborough by-election, but still only won 13 per cent and finished third. This 13 per cent in Wellingborough, while worthy of Reform’s national polling performance at the time, likely reflects underperformance given protest parties typically outperform national expectations at by-elections. On top of this, UKIP recorded 20 per cent in Wellingborough in 2015, suggesting Reform UK is still failing to reach the dizzy electoral heights of its right-of-Conservative forebear. And the by-election’s turnout was low, meaning Reform UK’s politically active base should have actually been over-represented in the results. Then in Rochdale, after Labour dropped its candidate and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats ploughed in minimal effort and resources, Reform finished a paltry sixth with 6.3 per cent.

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Nevertheless, whether Reform’s polling performance is being borne out by voter action at the ballot box or not, the immediate potency of the party’s recent rise does not change. Indeed, if Richard Tice’s outfit outpolls the Conservative Party even once between now and a forthcoming general election, the political effect would be seismic — and, as far as Rishi Sunak is concerned, catastrophic. For any opposition force, polling is its “currency of credibility”; surpassing the Conservatives would bestow upon Reform, caveats notwithstanding, real legitimacy as a political force. 

So, how might we arrive at this juncture? Well, the clearest path to a Reform-Conservative crossover runs, unsurprisingly, through the future actions of Nigel Farage. The former UKIP leader enjoys teasing Westminster as to whether he possesses any lingering political ambition — and the prospect of a Farage return rightly has Conservative MPs quivering. 

A poll in January found that a Farage comeback would increase Reform’s vote share by 3 points — from 11 per cent at the time to 14 per cent. Of course, a great deal has changed since January, not least of all the prominence of Reform and its polling status; but Farage, one can reasonably speculate, is a Reform boost waiting to happen. Moreover, such polling does not account for the increased media coverage Reform would garner upon Farage’s return, nor the potential other multiplier ramifications: such as further MP defections or even high-profile media endorsements.

On top of this, a YouGov poll for the Telegraph on Friday found that 50 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters have a positive view of Nigel Farage, compared to only 40 per cent for Rishi Sunak. Put quite simply, Farage is a living, breathing existential threat to the Conservative Party.

A Farage comeback — if not as Reform leader, then as campaign chief or a lead press conference performer — could entirely enervate Sunak’s ailing political proposition. A subsequent Reform surge in the polls would put the party on the cusp of a Conservative crossover.

With Farage waiting in the wings, then, Reform has easier recourse to boost its ratings than Sunak has to quash them. But the story here is also bigger than Farage. Reform, right now, does not have the campaigning infrastructure or political machinery that once empowered UKIP’s successes — a fact that may explain its recent underperformances. It means Reform has other pathways to making a Conservative crossover possible, beyond beckoning back its prince across the GB News studio. 

Reform-Conservative crossover: the end of Rishi Sunak?

If we ever do approach the point of Reform-Conservative crossover, Rishi Sunak would face a political cataclysm. The likely response from No 10’s rebels would put recent rolling briefings — which some practitioners refer to as their “grid of s***” — to shame.

The Conservative right, in its “five families” formation or some other, would lead the backlash. The New Conservatives clique has for some time been calling for an ideological shift under Sunak, in part, to stave off Reform’s advance. In response to Lee Anderson’s defection, a joint statement from co-chairs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates called on No 10 to “change course urgently”. “That means commitments on crime, immigration, tax, skills, welfare, housing, defence and the NHS that go far beyond what we are currently offering”, they added.  

At a point of Reform-Conservative crossover, Kruger and Cates would claim that their argument has been vindicated. The cyclical dynamic of Conservative psychodrama would once more grip Westminster politics, as these claims are contested across all manner of media fora. Rishi Sunak’s already ailing authority over his party would vanish; he would, at this point of course, be polling lower than Liz Truss. If the Conservative Party is relegated to third place in the polls, it follows that other political rules — such as not removing a party leader mere months away from an election — would likely suspend. Regicide would become a genuinely real prospect.

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But are the New Conservatives correct in their analysis that Reform’s voters are simply willing Rishi Sunak, or some potential successor, to woo them?

Firstly, taking account of my theory that Reform’s vote is stickier than many suggest, an ideological shift would not itself be sufficient to solve the problem at hand. Reform is not merely a receptacle for “disgruntled” Conservatives, but a new home for voters willing to countenance the destruction of the party. It is far from clear how many Conservative-Reform switchers are salvageable.

Secondly, tracking further right would alienate other aspects of the party’s fracturing voter coalition. The Conservative Party’s bid to chase voters who have departed their tent — many for good — would come at the expense of voters who remain in it or are rather more easily appeased.

A final point to make then is this: whether we do witness a Reform-Conservative crossover poll ahead of the next election, Rishi Sunak is still trapped. No 10 is being pulled in diametrically opposed directions — politically, ideologically and electoral geographically. Reform UK is already stealing voters from the Conservatives and, in turn, destabilising the party’s messaging in an election year. The New Conservatives are already forwarding the unsound argument that the party can quash Reform with a broader messaging shift. 

Farage, then, may be content preaching from his GB News pulpit and Reform’s polling ceiling could well be 15 per cent — but the dire dynamics at play for Rishi Sunak remain the same. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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