Reform UK: Existential threat to the Tories or here today, gone tomorrow?

Emboldened by two byelections successes, Reform UK seeks to capitalise on voter disenchantment with the ruling party. But how much of a threat are they to the Tories?

Right-Wing Watch

Last week, the right-wing challenger party Reform UK secured its best byelection results to date, scoring double digits in both Kingswood and Wellingborough. The party’s leader Richard Tice said the result was “remarkable” for a “resurgent party.” He called it a “defining moment” that shows Reform to be a “significant force now in British politics” that people have “got to take seriously.”

Reform’s successes certainly spell more trouble for Rishi Sunak, giving the Tory right greater ammunition to insist that only hardline action on immigration can prevent a split among the right-wing electorate and electoral oblivion.

“Reform UK have now entered the electoral battle in a serious way and that potentially adds to the Conservatives’ difficulties so far as their chances of hanging on to seats at the next general election,” Professor Sir John Curtice, the UK’s leading pollster told the BBC.

The big question is, just how serious exactly?  Will Reform UK win a significant slice of the vote in the general election and potentially demolish the Tories? Or are they likely to have had their glory and fade away, as the Brexit Party did in the 2019 general election after doing so well in the final European elections in the same year?

Either way, the Tories are, as Tice said in no uncertain terms, “shitting themselves” about the threat to their seats.  

The byelection results suggest that the band of pro-Leave voters who helped Boris Johnson secure his landslide in 2019, have splintered. This in turn gives the right of the party, who are calling on Rishi Sunak to lower taxation, roll-back on Net Zero, and take a tougher approach to immigration, their ‘told you so’ moment.

Bemoaning his party’s performance, Jacob Rees-Mogg warned they should ‘learn from’ the drubbing.

“How do we win them back to the Tory family? People who share many views and values with us. By delivering things they believe in and that means lower taxation, taking more of the advantages of Brexit, with more of the removal of EU retained law, it means doing less on the green issue that is making people cold and poor, and helping revitalise our economy,” he said.

The MP called on the Tories and Reform to come together to keep Labour out of government. “The challenge for Conservatives and conservatism is to reunite the right-wing of politics. Because the way we let Keir Starmer in by the back door of Downing Street is if the two parties which share so many things in common are divided on election day,” he told GB News.

Fellow right-wing Tory MPs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger echoed calls for tax cuts, more curbs on immigration and welfare, and a willingness to withdraw from the European convention on human rights. They claim that uniting the “Tory family” of Reform and Conservative voters would be a winning strategy.

Richard Tice however has repeatedly ruled out any kind of pact with the Tories ahead of the election. He even urged the party to “stand aside” and allow Reform to take on Labour in the upcoming general election, in order to prevent the “grave threat of Starmergeddon.”

“Tory MPs deserve to face redundancy for their woeful performance,” Tice wrote in Telegraph following the byelections.

Byelections are a weak signal of what might come

While Reform UK might be currently basking on cloud nine suggesting that a radical right revolt is back, it’s important to remember that historically, byelections have been a poor guide to the result at the next general election. Research by Electoral Calculus shows that between 2010 and 2019, there were 36 byelections.  Of the seven byelection gains, five of them reverted to the original party at the next general election.

“In other words, the byelection gain was temporary, and the byelection result was not a good guide to the subsequent general election,” says the political forecasters.

In this sense, Tice’s party glory might be shorter lived than many are predicting. Additionally, compared to the successes of its predecessors, UKIP and the Brexit Party, Reform’s accomplishments fall a long way short, so far at least. The Eurosceptic UKIP party won two seats at Westminster byelections and managed to bag 3.8m votes in the 2015 general election.

But after soaring high in British politics, playing a key role in forcing a referendum on EU membership and then the Brexit vote, UKIP lost its way. Internal instability and a drift toward a far-right, anti-Islam message, meant that after the 2016 referendum, the party saw its vote share and membership heavily decline, losing almost all its elected representatives. In 2018, Farage resigned as UKIP leader. The following year, he returned to frontline politics with the launch of the Brexit Party.

UKIP’s successor tells a similar story of a rapid rise and fall. Positioning itself as a promising alternative for Leave voters who were frustrated by the Brexit stalemate in Westminster, the party enjoyed glory in the 2019 European Parliament election, the UK’s final participation in a European Parliament election before leaving the EU on January 31, 2020.

Coming after the prime minister Theresa May had tried three times to secure MPs’ backing for her Brexit plan, Brexit was a central issue of the election campaign. The Brexit Party was the clear winner, with the Conservatives and Labour suffering heavy losses, with the former getting less than 10 percent of the vote.

On the back of his party’s success, Farage said he was ready to “take on” the main parties in a general election. “With a big, simple message – which is we’ve been badly let down by two parties who have broken their promises – we have topped the poll in a fairly dramatic style.

“The two-party system now serves nothing but itself. I think they are an obstruction to the modernising of politics… and we are going to take them on,” he told the BBC.

But interest in the party waned over the summer of 2019, in part, to a growing popularity for Boris Johnson’s mantra to ‘get Brexit done.’ In November, as the general election got closer, Farage announced the Brexit Party would not stand in any of the 317 Conservative-held constituencies, despite having previously said his party would contest over 600 seats nationwide. The party failed to win any seats in the GE. In January 2021, the Brexit Party officially changed its name to Reform UK. Two months later, Farage stepped down as Reform UK leader and was replaced by party chairman Richard Tice.

It has been estimated that the impact of the Brexit Party’s strategy to only stand in opposition seats, doubled Johnson’s parliamentary majority. “Despite his party being wiped out in this election, Farage’s role has been one of a kingmaker in terms of both the predominance of the Brexit agenda and the size of the Conservative majority,” wrote Pippa Norris, the Maguire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University.

Today, however, the political landscape is very different to what it was in 2019. Sunak no longer has the luxury of the advance the Tories enjoyed in recent general elections through winning over UKIP voters by embracing Brexit. Failure to fulfil his own promise and ‘stop the boats,’ has helped lead to over half of Tory leave voters thinking Sunak is failing on immigration. As such, Conservative support among Brexiteers has pretty much collapsed

Peter Kellner, former chairman and president of YouGov, speaks of how “as things stand,” the Tories have failed to hold on to their surge in support from Leave voters – and have become “increasingly toxic to Pro-Europeans.”

“The result has been to shrink their traditional, ideologically broad, electoral base and threaten their ability to win future elections. They have created this problem in the past decade. Will they be able to solve it in the next decade?” Kellner asks.

Tice’s refusal to work with them creates additional problems for Sunak. In 2019, most Brexit Party voters, unable to vote in the 300 seats where Farage had withdrawn support, backed the Tories. Tice has made no such pledge, so all the seats where voters had previously had no option to vote radical right in the last election, will get a chance to in this election. “A split on the right is almost certain to reduce the Conservatives’ majority in most of these seats, making it easier for Labour to win. And the better Reform do, the bigger the split will be,” notes Rob Ford, a professor of political science.

Then there is the prospect of Nigel Farage returning to the Tories, which has excited the right of the party. Sunak refused to rule out welcoming Nigel Farage, who was a Conservative party member but left in 1992 over the signing of the Maastricht treaty, back to the party. The PM hinted that the former UKIP leader could be welcomed back into the ‘broad church’ of the Conservative party, following Farage’s conspicuous appearance at the Tory conference in October. Jacob Rees-Mogg said he would back the idea of Farage rejoining, calling him a “very effective campaigner” with whom he shared “most of his political views.”

This week, Liz Truss, the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister, announced she was willing to work with Farage in order to change the Conservative Party and the country.

“I will work with whoever it takes to make our country successful, I will work with whoever.

“And Nigel, I’ve done an interview with him today, I would like him to become a member of the Conservative Party and help turn our country around,” she said during an interview with the far-right US commentator Steve Bannon at the Conservative Political Action Conference (Cpac) near Washington DC.

Farage however, has rejected the idea of rejoining the Conservatives under Rishi Sunak. Figures close to him are said to be confident that he will want to seize the opportunity to shape the next election with Reform UK and take a prominent role in the party’s attempts to make the next election a referendum on “mass migration.” 

Elections are won on the centre ground?

As the right of the Tory party demand a greater rightward shift, moderates are warning that such a move would be ‘politcally disastrous.’ Elections are won on the centre ground, or so the old political adage much beloved of centrist politicians goes. 1945, 1964, 1979, Labour’s near miss in 2017, and 2019, tell a rather different story and in truth, every general election has its unique characteristics. Nevertheless, our first past the post system does produce coalition type parties which tends to favour consensus policies. This suggests that even if the Tories did veer further to the right to appease the electorate threatening to vote Reform, they run the risk of alienating more ‘moderate’ Tories, who may flee to Labour, the Lib Dems, or even stay at home. The party’s One Nation caucus of more than 100 ‘moderate’ Tory MPs has raised such concerns. 

Damian Green, One Nation leader, said it was wrong to believe the Reform and Tory vote could be added together. Calling for the party to unite around current policies. Green said:

“If we attempt to become the Reform party, we will get the Reform party’s level of support. It seems politically disastrous to me.

“The only thing in a general election year is to unite. Whatever else we need to change, we absolutely need not to be arguing about policies at this stage of the cycle. Colleagues who say we need a different policy approach, those who want the Conservative party to be like the Reform party, will continue to do so but there’s no evidence you can add the Reform vote to the Tory vote and say here’s a new coalition.”

Another leading One Nation member said there would be a battle ahead to stop the right of the party pushing to neutralise Reform when “elections are only ever won on the centre ground.”

Devoting yet more energy into migration could be the worst of all worlds for Rishi Sunak – alienating the moderates while doing little to placate the right who have already made up their minds to back Reform.

Through the Tories’ failings, Reform’s resurgence might be real, but whether it will translate into votes in the ballot box remains to be seen. The biggest takeaway from the byelections was the huge swing to Labour and lost support for the Tories. Claims that Reform UK could pose as a serious existential threat to the Tories may well be overstated. For now, at least.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Mail on Sunday makes hysterical (and hilarious) ‘revelation’ that Just Stop Oil plan to sabotage general election

The Mail on Sunday (MoS) excelled itself recently, even by its own standards. 

‘Eco zealots in plot to ‘occupy homes of MPs’ splashed the front page. The newspaper’s ‘exclusive’ speaks of ‘militant’ activists plotting a ‘sinister nationwide blitz to ‘occupy’ MPs’ homes ahead of the general election.’

‘Hardcore eco-zealots are also planning to target politicians’ offices and disrupt speeches and party conferences in a chilling campaign of intimidation and harassment that strikes at the heart of the democratic process,’ the report continues.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman even joined the outcry, praising the MoS for its ‘brilliant’ journalism.

‘I give full credit to The Mail on Sunday’s team for this brilliant piece of journalism which has exposed how Just Stop Oil fanatics plan to threaten, intimidate and harass MPs from all parties in the run-up to the election,’ she is quoted saying in the article.

The ‘investigation’ allegedly involved under cover MoS reporters posing as new Just Stop Oil recruits to gain information about the sabotage ‘plot.’

As barmy as it all sounds, there is nothing new about this type of reporting by the right-wing media, especially during election season.  In America (where such wacky reporting is even more prevalent), the far-right syndicated news network Breitbart published a similar tirade against the progressive movement,
Indivisible, which was launched as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The 5,000-word ‘exclusive’ drones on about a ‘well-coordinated, well-funded, and high-powered network of leftists’ that had ‘hijacked Democrats in effort to stop Trump at all costs.’

Trump himself posted the article on X, much to the delight of Indivisible which described how the group was living ‘rent-free’ in Trump’s ‘warped little brain.’

“Some right-wing hack takes a look at our website (or our strategy guide PDFs), slaps a giant caps-lock ‘REVEALED’ label on the public communications we’ve already pushed out, and breathlessly reports about how they’ve blown the lid off a huge conspiracy,” said Indivsible co-executive director Ezra Levin, when describing the formula such smear campaigns take.

Back to the MoS’ revelation about Just Stop Oil’s plot to sabotage the general election. The article takes particular objection to activist Phoebe Plummer. They describe her as the ‘privately educated ‘poster girl’ of Just Stop Oil. In fact, the newspaper even devoted an entire article to the environmentalist. ‘The posh background of Just Stop Oil’s pink-haired poster girl: Phoebe Plummer grew up in her family’s £4million Chelsea mansion and went to £45,000-a-year private school in Ascot… but at just 22 she’s already been arrested for a string of disturbance,’ the newspaper splashed.

To translate into non-Daily Mail language, the young activist was sentenced to six months in prison for taking part in a slow peaceful march to protest new oil and gas drilling. She was one of six Just Stop Oil activists who were imprisoned in the spate of two weeks in November, as a result, some might say, of the Tories’ draconian anti-protest legislation.

Apart from its sensationalist, conspiratorial reporting, the story, once again, shows the Mail’s acute hypocrisy. As the paper gets its knickers in a twist about ‘posh’ environmental activists, readers are kept in the dark about the owner’s country estate. Check out the country home which Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th
Viscount Rothermere, and proprietor of the Daily Mail, had built in the early 2000s.

Ferne Park in the Cotswolds, no less.

I rest my case.

Woke Bashing of the Week – Right descend into meltdown over ‘woke’ Overground names

Travel on the London Overground at your peril, as you may be turned into some virtue-signalling snowflake. At least that’s the message coming from the moral panicking anti-woke brigade who have descended into a full-on meltdown over the new names of the London Overground rail lines.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently unveiled six names to honour and celebrate different parts of the capital’s “unique local history and culture,” – Lioness, Mildmay, Windrush, Suffragette and Liberty.

You would think he had committed some unspeakable crime the way right-wingers reacted. “Fury as Sadiq Khan splurges £6million of taxpayers’ money changing Overground to ‘virtue signalling’ names like ‘Suffragette’ and ‘Lioness’: Outraged Tories slam ‘money-wasting’ vanity project that panders to leftie liberals in election year,” was the Mail’s headline on the news.

The Telegraph’s objection to the Overground christenings extended several days. “Sadiq Khan’s lunacy knows no bounds: London’s train lines are now a monument to the hard-Left,” was one outraged headline.

“Why must we put up with the relentless politicisation of almost everything by the identitarian Left?” continued the report.

Needless to say, Khan’s Tory challenger Susan Hall, of whom the London Mayor has likened to Donald Trump, saying a win for her could start a string of victories in 2024 for the extreme, populist right, joined the contempt. Writing for the Express, (say no more) Hall attempted to argue that the mayor’s latest ‘virtue-signalling stunts,’ was an insult to Londoners.

Hmm, I’m not sure that’s entirely right. Khan explicitly said that he had engaged with communities and experts to find names that would reflect the heritage of the city and be a ‘source of huge pride.’ He also collaborated with communities to identify names that would highlight less-known aspects of London’s history. The part that working-class suffrages played in the East End, for example, and that of Mildmay, in the 1980s Aids crisis.

Also, judging by some of responses, it’s the right-wingers’ meltdown that people object to.

“I don’t get how calling something the ‘Liberty Line’ is woke. Has everything come full circle now and freedom is woke?” asked author Nick Tyrone.

Now if Khan had named the lines the Diggers and Levellers, the Chartists, or the Peterloo line from our glorious radical past, that would have been quite something. As it is this war on woke takes the right into some very strange and dark places. Up a gum tree, up a creek without a paddle – the metaphors can go on but they all amount to a complete loss of any kind of political compass.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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