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Why the Tories should fear Reform

Even without Nigel Farage at the helm, Reform could spell electoral ruin for the Conservative Party.

By Rachel Cunliffe

How significant a role will Reform UK play in this election?

That question has been haunting the Conservatives ever since October, when their party lost two by-elections – in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire – where the Reform vote was higher than the Labour majority. That panic was renewed in January, when a YouGov poll showed the impact the insurgent right-wing party could have on the Tories, making the difference in nearly a hundred marginals. It warned of a “1997-style wipeout”, with the Tories winning just 169 seats.

So the news this morning that Nigel Farage, who founded Reform as the Brexit Party and led it to victory in the 2019 European elections, will not be standing as a candidate on 4 July will have come as a huge relief at Conservative Campaign Headquarters. In a statement published shortly before Reform’s official campaign launch, the party’s “honorary president”, made it clear he thought the US election in November was more important than the one happening in the UK in six weeks’ time. “I will do my bit to help in the campaign, but it is not the right time for me to go any further than that,” Farage wrote.

This should not come as much of a surprise. While Farage has long teased Westminster with speculation about a political comeback, the odds were always against him making a return. For a start, he has tried to become an MP seven times. Each time he has failed and been humiliated. For a man whose clout rests on his perceived popularity, trying and failing again now would seriously damage his brand.

Moreover, Farage does not need a seat in the House of Commons to exert his influence. You could argue that he has had a more significant impact on UK politics, particularly in the long term, than most MPs in the past 20 years. Since June 2021, just a week after the channel’s official launch, he has hosted a show on GB News. This lucrative gig (Farage’s salary is not public, but his fellow Reform politician Lee Anderson has an annual salary of £100,000 for presenting) comes with other perks: Farage can make his political case to the country from the comfort of the GB News studio, rather than traipsing up and down a constituency knocking on doors for votes.

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While there are strict rules for parliamentary candidates on TV during election campaigns, Ofcom has ruled that Farage can continue to present his nightly GB News show as he is not personally standing. He will have a bigger platform in the run-up to this election than most candidates, and will arguably be able to make more of an impact, all without any risk of looking stupid if he loses. If Reform does well, Farage will be able to claim some credit; if it falls flat on its face, he can distance himself from the embarrassment and continue with his US endeavours.

All of this has somewhat taken the wind out of Reform’s sails. This morning’s campaign launch was a subdued affair, with Farage notable by his absence. This isn’t the first time a Reform event has been overshadowed by speculation over whether its founder would appear, and its leader, Richard Tice, will have to find a way around this Farage-shaped hole at future events. Today, he dodged the question by saying Farage would “be helping out significantly” with Reform’s campaign. Deputy leader Ben Habib was less gracious, saying: “For any political movement to succeed, it needs a leader who is prepared to absolutely stay the distance and make the fight.” That leader, evidently, isn’t Farage.

But after their own rocky campaign start, the Tories should not be celebrating. Reform might seem less dangerous without Farage on the candidates list, but has anything really changed? The party reiterated its plans, first revealed to the New Statesman in 2021, to field candidates in virtually every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales. Reform will not be standing aside to give incumbent Conservatives an easier ride, as the Brexit Party did for Boris Johnson in 2019. Tice, who is standing as a candidate against a Conservative incumbent in Boston and Skegness, told me in October that the Tories “need punishing, they need firing, and with our help they will be”. That hasn’t changed.

And with Tice’s message today – that this is “the immigration election” – it’s clear what the Reform strategy will be. A huge billboard at the launch showed a graph of migration to the UK from 1066 onwards: a virtually flat line until 1997 that has essentially become vertical in the past 27 years, of which the Tories have been in power for 14. It was hardly subtle – and, while you can argue about the timeline and the scale, you can easily imagine it on a flier posted through letter boxes in seats where immigration is a top concern.

Right now, Reform seems to be polling at around 10 per cent. It did acceptably but not fantastically in the local elections and Blackpool South by-election on 2 May. No one expects it to win any actual seats, even the one the former Tory Lee Anderson currently holds. But the YouGov poll showing a 1997-style wipeout for the Tories didn’t have Reform winning any seats either. It just had it winning votes from disillusioned Conservative voters and enabling Labour to edge ahead. The party has a clear message, a strongly defined target voter, and an outsized platform with its founder still able to use his national profile and television platform to champion its agenda – or, at the very least, trash its Conservative rivals.

Maybe the Tories shouldn’t be breathing sighs of relief after all.

[See more: Will Labour raise taxes?]

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