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  1. Comment
16 February 2024

Reform UK isn’t the Tories’ big problem

A strategy based on appealing to disillusioned right-wing voters is destined to fail.

By David Gauke

The best that can be said about the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections from a Conservative perspective is that they did not tell us much that we did not already know. Unfortunately for them, what we already knew was that the Tories are very unpopular and their voters are looking elsewhere.

The Wellingborough result was a real horror show. It was the second largest Conservative-to-Labour swing in electoral history and the largest fall in Tory support ever. Local factors – the expulsion from parliament of Peter Bone and the Tory candidate being his partner – obviously played a part, as did the fact the effort by the national party barely exceeded the amount of campaigning Labour will do in Rochdale over the next two weeks.

In Kingswood, the swing to Labour was less spectacular but still in line with the polls showing the largest Labour leads. It is reasonable to assume that incumbent governments will do better at a general election than in a by-election, so one can make the argument that Kingswood points to a heavy defeat and not a Tory wipeout. But that is still a heavy defeat.

Where it gets really depressing for the Tories is the absence of any obvious way to recover. The Prime Minister’s plan is to focus on the economy. This is almost certainly the least-worst option but it is not a particularly persuasive one in the week in which the economy officially entered recession. The Office for Budget Responsibility, meanwhile, has apparently advised the Chancellor that there is no additional headroom for tax cuts. In any event, the Tories’ best attack line – that Labour was going to spend, borrow and ultimately tax by an additional £28bn a year – has been neutered by Keir Starmer.

Other Conservative voices look at the by-election results and get excited about the performance of the Farage-backed Reform UK (the party won 13 per cent in Wellingborough and 10.4 per cent in Kingswood). Yes, it is now a presence (albeit a weaker one than Ukip in 2015) and its voters mostly backed the Tories in 2019. But a strategy that is based on winning back those voters is flawed for at least three reasons.  

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First, more Tory voters are going to Labour (or the Liberal Democrats when they are the main challenger) than Reform UK and it is these voters who should be the priority. Trying to appeal to Reform voters will make it harder to win back the larger number of defectors to centre-left parties.

Second, not all of these Reform voters are recoverable for the Tories, whatever they do. Suggesting that the Conservatives can expect to simply add the Reform vote to their total is deluded..

Admittedly, it is easier to criticise other strategies than to devise something likely to be successful. Better not to have caused a collapse in market confidence through fiscal recklessness. Better not to have put a rogue into Downing Street. Better not to have become quite so closely associated with a policy choice – Brexit – that is so obviously foolish.  

Third, policies designed to win the support of Reform voters often increase the salience of issues that play to the insurgent party’s strengths. Immigration is a real issue but the more that Conservatives talk about it – especially when they make promises they cannot deliver – the stronger Reform becomes. 

But all of that is done, and the Conservatives are not yet ready to admit these errors to themselves, let alone the country. Defeat looks inevitable. The question for the party now is whether the by-election defeats precipitate another Tory panic and a serious attempt to change the leader. My expectation is that they will not but it is possible that some on the Conservative benches may try to make a bad situation even worse.

[See also: The Tories are still facing electoral apocalypse]

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