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Can Tories avoid electoral crash as Reform support rises?

There was considerable shock at an opinion poll that showed the hard right Reform party within touching distance of the Conservatives.

Reform, the party which was founded by Nigel Farage, was on 15%, according to YouGov which is nearly within the margin of error behind the Conservatives who were on 19%.

Labour continued to lead with 44%.

There were the usual caveats: it was only one poll and the methodology used by YouGov is different from other polling companies which showed higher support for the Conservatives.

The analogy of a looming iceberg has been used repeatedly in media comment about what is thought to be in store for the Conservatives.

This involves both the threat posed by the Reform party and ultimately the upcoming general election.

Support for Reform has been growing exponentially – from 1.9% in April 2022 to 12% now, according to the Guardian tracker ‘poll of polls’.

The rise in Reform’s support started to build up when Rishi Sunak took over as Conservative leader.

There had been complaints from Tory party members about the fact that Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who were both elected by the membership, had been ousted by MPs while Rishi Sunak took over without the membership having a say. Mr Sunak was never popular with the base.

One poll had Reform on 9% in December 2022 which was equivalent to half the Conservative support at the time.

However, Reform seemed unable to translate that into actual votes. It fielded 475 candidates in the May 2023 local elections but only got six seats. And most polls had the party below 6%.

There was much talk then about how hard right parties tend to not do well in British elections.

Things have changed in recent months however, with the party finishing in third place ahead of the Liberal Democrats in two by-elections.

In Kingswood in the West Country, Reform won 10% and in Wellingborough in the East Midlands the party got 13%, which is a new record.

It did not do as well in the recent Rochdale by-election where it got just 6% but their candidate there had previously been suspended from the Labour Party for sending suggestive texts to a teenage girl.

The reasons for Reform’s rise are given as growing dissatisfaction particularly among men, those in the north of England, those who voted for Brexit and who voted Conservative in 2019.

The continuing high levels of migration and the weekly pro-Palestinian marches in London have caused disquiet among sections of the British population.

But there is also a lot of dissatisfaction about the continuing state of the economy with issues ranging from difficulties getting a dental appointment to the early release of prisoners because of a lack of space and the general state of public services.

Lee Anderson became Reform’s first MP (file pic)

Lee Anderson, who resigned from the Conservative Party to become Reform’s first MP, cited George Galloway’s victory in the Rochdale by-election as a cause of concern.

Mr Anderson was suspended by the Conservatives for claiming that London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan is under the control of Islamists, and he has been saying that he wants his country back.

His resignation definitely caused shudders in Conservative party with a renewed bout of speculation about a challenge to Rishi Sunak’s leadership.

Penny Mordaunt is being touted as a possible successor to Rishi Sunak (file pic)

Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt is the latest name to be touted as a possible successor.

But it is thought that a majority of Tory MPs – maybe as much as 80% – continue to believe that electing a fourth leader in four years is not the way to win an election.

Reform may not win any seats themselves because of Britain’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system but by putting up candidates it could help to inflict a historic defeat on the Conservatives.

Richard Tice is Reform’s leader

And the avowed intention of Reform’s leader Richard Tice is to “smash and destroy” the Conservatives. He could well succeed.

The latest predictions are for the Conservatives to lose over 250 seats in what would amount to an iceberg collision.

Labour could be on course to win a majority of 254 seats compared to Tony Blair’s 179-seat majority in 1997. At the time, that was considered a landslide.

Rishi Sunak points to continuing reduction in inflation and signs of growth this year, including an expected cut in interest rates, as signs of hope.

But increasingly it seems the team in No 10 Downing Street are rearranging deck chairs while many party members are panicking and looking for lifeboats.

Nigel Farage has been enjoying a lucrative sideline role as GB News presenter (file pic)

One big question is whether Nigel Farage is going to enter the political fray either with Reform or even – it has been floated – with the Conservatives.

He has been enjoying a lucrative sideline role as GB News presenter and reality show star. But he admits being tempted and the prospect of finally being elected MP after trying and failing seven times must have its attractions.

The upcoming local elections in May are expected to see further Tory losses. The party could lose half their seats on top of the loss of 1,000 seats in last year’s elections.

In that case we could expect more discontent and threats of mutiny from the backbenchers.

But even if there was a new leader the question will remain as to how the party can avoid an electoral crash.

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