Party has tweaked its name and is preparing to announce hundreds of new parliamentary candidates
It was barely noticed, but a slight tweak last month to the name of the insurgent rightwing party Reform UK sought to resurrect a ghost that once terrified the Conservatives. In future, it is to be known as “Reform UK: The Brexit party”.
The explicit move to tap into a reservoir of leave-voting nostalgia comes amid signs that the party, which struggled after its co-founder Nigel Farage focused his attention on his broadcasting career, could once again cause real problems for the Tories.
Among those warning that the Conservatives party could lose votes to Reform is the former business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spoke out after the sacking of Suella Braverman as home secretary and the appointment of David Cameron as foreign secretary.
YouGov polling found that voters who supported the Tories in 2019 are more likely to switch to Reform than to Labour, and there have been suggestions that such switchers cost Rishi Sunak’s party the recent byelection.
More alarmingly for Downing Street, an average of four polls since the reshuffle placed the Tories on 20% – six points lower than a week before – with Conservative supporters shifting to Reform. Amid the returnt of the former PM who opposed Brexit, Reform’s average score rose from 7% per cent to 10% in a week.
In the coming weeks, Reform will announce hundreds of candidates as it seeks to build on momentum behind a stated desire to “destroy” the Conservatives.
Even at the cost of splitting the rightwing vote, Reform’s leader, Richard Tice, insists every Tory candidate will face a Reform opponent in the general election, dismissing any rerun of the 2019 deal in which the Brexit party, as Reform was called then, stood aside in more than 300 Tory-held seats after Boris Johnson gave commitments on a hard Brexit.
It is a threat that Conservative MPs, particularly those in “red wall” seats, are all too aware of and one that is already feeding into internal debates about the direction Sunak is taking them.
Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Penistone and Stockbridge and regarded as a rising star on the right of the party, told the Guardian that her party should welcome the pressure from Reform UK to make sure that it returns to what she views as the principles behind the Tories’ election-winning 2019 voter coalition.
Cates said: “The polling we have seen very accurately reflects what I and others are seeing on the doorstep, which is that while there is no love for [Labour’s Keir] Starmer, people voted for a Conservative party and want a Conservative government. Of course, every single ‘red wall’ Conservative MP would rather there was not a Reform candidate standing against us.”
One aspect of the stronger than expected performances by Reform UK in polling and the byelections – particularly in Tamworth, where it won 5.4% of the vote – has been that they were achieved largely without Farage. While the former Ukip leader is listed on Companies House as a director of Reform UK, pollsters have suggested that the real threat to the Tories would only emerge if he returned as leader.
There was speculation that Farage – whose profile stands to be boosted from his participation in this year’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! – could throw in his lot with the Conservatives, with rumours boosted by his appearance at this year’s Tory conference.
But Richard Tice, who now heads Reform, said on Sunday: “The reality is that he was on an undercover mission in plain sight at the Tory conference but he has confirmed that Reform is the party that he’s committed to.”
Until now, a Farage return was seen as a necessary requisite for big donors backing Reform, whose latest accounts show it to be of relatively modest means.
It remains to be seen whether byelection performances can encourage wealthy backers to dip into their wallets for a party that lacks the periodic boosts that its pro-Brexit predecessors were able to enjoy, ironically, from European elections.
Below the political radar, nevertheless, a steady trickle of disillusioned Conservative activists continue to defect to Reform, which says that only about a quarter of its general election candidates will have been Brexit party veterans.
They include Kabeer Kher, a financial services worker who left a Tory party that he regards as having “drifted to the left” on issues ranging from taxes and public spending to net zero. Now he is Reform’s spokesperson in Mid-Norfolk, where he says the 22,000-plus majority of the sitting MP, George Freeman, the science minister, is no longer a guarantee of security.
Kher said: “After what I saw in the Mid Bedfordshire byelection, where I did a lot of campaigning with our candidate, there is not a seat where the Conservatives are safe.
“Even if we can give them a scare, that will be good for me, but I honestly can’t tell you what the difference is anyway between Sunak or Starmer in Downing Street.”
Source : The Guardian