Reform UK voter support highlights threat to Sunak’s right flank

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Since Reform UK relaunched in late 2020, the party has underperformed when put to the test in by-elections. But this week the populist threat on Rishi Sunak’s right flank showed it could meaningfully chip away Conservative votes.

Reform on Friday secured 13 per cent of the vote in the Northamptonshire seat of Wellingborough, while taking 10 per cent in Kingswood near Bristol, the first time the party’s vote share had entered double digits in by-elections.

Although both former Conservative-held seats were won by Labour after a heavy swing away from the governing Tories, Reform’s performance previewed how Sunak would be squeezed at the general election expected this year, particularly in areas where a majority voted for Brexit in 2016.

Reform leader Richard Tice on Friday told the Financial Times that he was “delighted” by the performance. He said it showed that Reform’s opinion polling was translating into actual votes.

National polls have shown a sustained increase in support for Reform from 3 per cent in October last year to 10 per cent in the lead-up to this week’s by-elections.

Philip Cowley, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said that Thursday’s results were the “first sign in the wild” that Reform was a genuine danger to the Conservatives.

“They now face Labour polling well and Reform taking votes from the right,” he said.

He added that the threat of the Liberal Democrats in some southern seats meant Sunak would be “fighting on three flanks in England and Wales”.

Helen Harrison, the Tory candidate in Wellingborough, told broadcasters on Friday morning Reform was a “bit of a threat to us Conservatives”. Sunak warned a “vote for anyone who isn’t the Conservative candidate . . . is just a vote to put Keir Starmer in power”.

Still, in Wellingborough, even if every voter for Reform had backed the Tories, the Conservatives would have still lost to Labour.

Before Thursday, Reform had done worse than its polling average in most by-elections it has contested since the Brexit party was rebadged Reform UK in November 2020.

Reform previously outperformed its polling averages in only two seats, Old Bexley and Sidcup, a wealthy suburb in London, and North Shropshire, a Tory safe seat that flipped to the Liberal Democrats in 2021. 

In the other 14 by-elections since November 2020, Reform underperformed. By contrast, the party’s spiritual predecessor Ukip generally outperformed its polling in the years leading up to the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Keiran Pedley of pollster Ipsos Mori said in Wellingborough and Kingswood, Reform had put up high-profile candidates — including its deputy leader — to deliver a “solid double digit vote share” and apply pressure to the Tories.

“These two seats were big tests for Reform,” he said. “There’s a common thread from Ukip to the Brexit party to Reform of the party shaping the policies of the Conservatives and there’s a wing of voters on the right who will lend their vote [for this purpose].”

Both constituencies were Brexit supporting areas in the 2016 referendum, places were Reform would be expected to perform well. Wellingborough voted 63 per cent for Brexit and Kingswood 57 per cent.

Ben Habib, the party’s deputy leader and candidate in Wellingborough, insisted ahead of the vote that Reform was a genuine electoral contender, not a pressure group.

“We are not here as a facilitator for handing the baton either to one party or the other,” he told the Financial Times.

While canvassing in Wellingborough, Habib told potential voters that Reform was there to sweep away a ‘corrupt political system’ © Andrew Fox/FT

Wearing one of 400 blue “Vote Ben Habib” caps he had ordered for the campaign, he said last weekend that Reform was angling to pick up traditional Conservative voters who were wavering in their support.

As he went door-to-door, Habib told potential voters that Reform was there to sweep away a “corrupt political system”. Many of the people who expressed support said they watched Reform president Nigel Farage’s show on broadcaster GB News.

Reform will publish its manifesto, which it has branded a “contract with the people”, in late February. The document is expected to focus on immigration, axing net zero policies and cutting taxes.

Ahead of the by-elections in Wellingborough, local residents Phillis Sangster, 75, and her daughter Julia, 50, were split on whether to stick with the Conservatives.

“We’ve discussed Reform, [but] I’m going to vote for the Conservatives. They’ve done quite a bit for us,’‘ said Phillis. She pointed to the pension triple lock and the Tories’ anti-immigration rhetoric.

Julia was less convinced: “I think the Tories seem to be more talk, than action. Reform seems to be more for this country.”

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