LONDON — Conservative MPs fear another season of their Nigel Farage nightmare is looming. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is trying — and failing — to calm their nerves.
Farage — once dubbed Mr. Brexit — is back in the British headlines as the star of primetime reality TV show “I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here.”
But as the former MEP gallivants in the Australian jungle, dodging snakes and drinking blended goat testicles, the latest upstart political party he founded is fast gaining support. A recent BMG Research poll put Reform UK in third place behind Labour and the Tories, on 11 per cent — its best-ever performance in surveys by that company.
Speculation is now growing that Farage will use his TV platform as a springboard for a triumphant return to the political scene next year, leading Reform UK into a general election expected by November 2024.
Such a specter looms large in Conservative minds as Sunak battles through a nightmare spell in which the U.K. recorded the highest net migration figures on record, and his flagship plan to crack down on the numbers claiming asylum by deporting them to Rwanda was struck down by the U.K. Supreme Court.
The Conservatives “should be scared,” said James Johnson, a former No. 10 Downing Street pollster who now runs his own polling company, JL Partners.
Johnson said there were “lots of socially conservative voters out there who voted Tory in 2019, and now — especially on immigration — don’t see any progress.”
In response to the growing threat, Sunak this week announced draconian new visa rules to cut legal migration numbers by 300,000 a year, significantly raising the pay threshold for skilled workers arriving from abroad, and banning care staff from bringing their families to the U.K.
In the most contentious move, he also raised the salary threshold for spouses’ visas — raising fears that thousands of lower-paid families will be torn apart.
Yet having stopped short of demands from the Tory right to disregard Britain’s international obligations and block all future legal challenges to his Rwanda policy, Sunak still faces the prospect of a major backbench rebellion next week.
His increasingly hardline immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, quit in protest on Wednesday, claiming Sunak’s proposed new laws to overrule the courts on Rwanda did not go far enough. With the Tory right in mutiny, Downing Street may struggle to get the flagship legislation through parliament in a showdown vote next week.
But for Tory MPs — as for Sunak — the struggle is existential, with many fearing Farage’s return would cost them their parliamentary seats unless they can show voters that both legal and undocumented migration are being reduced.
How to kill the Conservative Party
Few believe Reform UK will make any strides in winning actual parliamentary seats next year, thanks to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system. It favors larger established parties because just one representative wins a seat in each of the U.K.’s 650 constituencies — meaning there are no prizes for second-place finishes, no matter how great a party’s national vote share.
But multiple Conservative MPs and strategists believe even a small surge in support for Reform would skim off thousands of potential Tory voters, and so deprive the party of scores of battleground seats. Such an outcome could turn an already-expected Labour victory into a landslide.
While not explicitly naming Reform, former Home Secretary Suella Braverman warned on Wednesday that the Conservative Party faced “electoral oblivion” due to its failure to control immigration.
A former Tory Cabinet minister in a seat where voters strongly supported Brexit was more forthright: There is “no doubt” Reform UK poses a threat to the Conservatives, they told POLITICO. (The ex- minister, like others quoted, was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the threat they think they will face.)
“If they’ve got candidates and a bit of a message, they don’t have to do a lot to pick up a couple of percentage points of the vote. If you’ve got a 2,000—3,000 majority, Reform don’t have to do a lot. They can stop us from winning,” the former minister said.
One former Vote Leave strategist put it more bluntly: “I think they are f***ed if Reform comes back.”
Fear of Farage
Unlike in 2019, when Farage — then leader of Reform UK’s predecessor, the Brexit Party — stood down candidates in seats held by the Conservatives, a Reform official said there is “absolutely no chance” of cutting a similar deal to save Sunak’s skin.
In 2019 a “serious threat” had been presented by nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and the hard-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, they added.
With a Labour win in 2024 already priced in under Starmer’s moderate leadership, Reform UK appear more interested in inflicting the worst-possible defeat on the Conservatives — forcing a major post-election reckoning for the party.
“We don’t think Starmer’s Labour Party is anything like the Corbyn Labour Party would be,” the Reform official said. “Right now the thing that’s stopping Britain having a decent center-right party of government is the Conservative Party. It is not Labour.”
Farage himself — officially now retired, though publicly flirting with a return — ultimately holds the key to how potent a force Reform UK can be, political strategists believe.
“All he needs to do is put his name on a piece of paper in 50 constituencies and he will probably get in the region of two, three, four, five thousand votes in each one,” the former Vote Leave strategist quoted above said.
“He needs to be the figurehead, but that is all he needs to do,” they added. “I think Farage will just go ‘immigration, betrayal, they lied to you, blah blah blah, vote for me if you want to protest’ — and people will vote for Farage.”
While some analysts of public opinion believe the Reform UK threat is existential for the Tories, others are more cautious.
“I have never once had someone in a group say I’m voting for Reform UK,” noted Luke Tryl, director of the More in Common consultancy, which regularly tests public opinion in focus groups around Britain. Tryl, however, agreed there is “definitely a group of voters pissed off at both Tories and Labour to whom they could be attractive.”
But he warned Reform’s current combination of “tough rhetoric” on immigration with “hyper-libertarianism” on issues like climate, COVID-19, and public services could ultimately stunt their growth — given their potential voters were the most pro-lockdown, and also care about climate change.
Joe Twynam, co-founder and director of the public opinion consultancy Deltapoll, insists immigration is still not the potent issue that it was at the time of the Brexit referendum.
“It’s not nearly as important to people as it was in 2016, and the profile of people who engage with it is not the same as it was.”
While a Reform campaign focused on immigration was “likely to bring over some Conservatives, perhaps in the short term,” Twyman added, he couldn’t see it making a difference at a national level. “As with UKIP, when it comes to the general election, the threat is greater in theory than it will be in practice,” he warned.
The problem for Rishi Sunak is that right now, that threat is sending shivers down Conservative spines.
Esther Webber contributed reporting
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