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17 June 2024

Are Reform really beating the Conservatives in the polls?

The margin of error exists for a reason, but that does not mean the Conservatives should rest easy.

By Ben Walker

YouGov’s latest poll on voting intentions, published on Friday, will remain one of the most memorable flashpoints in this election campaign. It was the moment that Reform outpaced the Conservatives by one point. It is within the margin of error but is still, at least, symbolically significant. The arrival of Nigel Farage has had a non-frivolous impact on the electoral topography.

But we should not get carried away. Is Reform leading the Conservatives in the opinion polls? No. They’re a percentage point ahead of the Conservatives in one poll which is – frankly – an outlier and fielding excessive attention. They’re behind in seven others conducted at the same time. But noise like this is a common by-product of the polling landscape. And a crossover poll was always bound to generate a lot of headline attention – especially as the Conservatives struggle to curry much favour with anyone at the moment. But there are margins of error hardwired into polls for a reason: the Reform share in the YouGov survey (19%) isn’t far off what a number of other pollsters are saying; and the Conservative share in the YouGov survey (18%) isn’t far off what the Britain Elects poll tracker is saying. In other words: it is a statistical point that Reform leads the Conservatives in one poll, but it is not a definitive summation of what all the numbers tell us right now.

Nevertheless, the gap between the Conservatives and Reform has shrunk in recent weeks – so much so that we must countenance the possibility that Reform could still become the default preference for many former Conservative voters, in bigger numbers than suggested by the polls now. The arrival of Nigel Farage appears to have galvanised previously apathetic Tories (who had all but decided not to vote) into supporting Reform. At the end of May it was estimated that just one in 10 Tories would swing Reform, now YouGov is looking at three to four in 10 going that way.

In 2015 Ukip were substantially squeezed by some effective Conservative messaging: “Vote Ukip, Get Labour.” Would a similar line – “Vote Reform, Get Labour” – work now? It’s unlikely. Prospective Reform voters might abhor Labour but their antipathy to Sunak’s Conservatives is significant in its own right. This is not 2015, and the Conservative base that won them seats then likes Farage more than Sunak. This has been the case for months and Farage’s return to the frontline was just a spark to that long-awaiting match.

There are a few things for Farage to be cautious of. Brand loyalty to the Conservative Party may turn out to be more deeply held than many polls have captured. And, the Sunak vs. Starmer horse race might stamp out the oxygen feeding Farage’s current press ubiquity. But, if Farage can hold in the minds of enough voters, we may see a “crossover” of sorts manifest in reality. But the probability of that is low at the moment.

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I have to wonder whether scaring the electorate about a looming Labour supermajority (from the likes of Grant Shapps) will counterintuitively harm the Conservatives. If it is roundly accepted that the election is a foregone conclusion, then whatever remains of an engaged Conservative base may give up altogether – abandoning the party they have been so disappointed by. Or, they may simply protest – what is there to lose anyway?

In 2013 José Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, lashed out at the Conservative Party. He accused them of aping Ukip policy in a desperate attempt to coax Ukip voters onside. Ukip were on the rise and the Conservatives were trailing Labour. Barroso said that, in the end, voters will always prefer “the original to the copy.” If lapsed Conservatives feel like protesting, it is no question where their votes will go. The copy won’t cut it.

[See also: Can Starmer and Southgate both triumph this summer?]

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