“The day Liz Truss got ousted, party membership exploded,” explained Reform UK party leader Richard Tice, referring to the end of the shortlived tenure of the former prime minister. “We had our record day in terms of new sign ups”.
Previously known as the Brexit party under former leader Nigel Farage, Tice hopes that Reform can capitalise on discontent with the ruling Conservatives, as voters struggle with the cost of living crisis, widespread public sector strikes and a national health service in crisis.
The latest polling by YouGov shows an uptick in support in recent months, with 7 per cent of voters backing Reform compared to 3 per cent last July.
The boost has not gone unnoticed among Tory MPs and senior Downing Street officials who have warned that the resurgence of Reform is one of the biggest threats to the Conservatives’ prospects at the next general election with the ruling party trailing Labour in the polls.
Rebranded as Reform by Farage in January 2021 as an anti-lockdown party, it has since pivoted to focus on what Tice described as “common sense policies,” include pledges to cut taxes, control immigration and ending NHS waiting lists.
Speaking to the Financial Times in late December, Tice said the decision by the government to raise taxes and the rise in the number of migrant crossings the English Channel in small boats was behind his party’s growing support. He said that since Truss’s resignation as prime minister, right of centre voters had become more receptive to his “traditional conservative” message.
The fear among Tory MPs is that Tice, who took over as leader from Farage in March 2021, is right. “The Brexit vote was primarily an immigration vote and we have failed to deliver on immigration,” said one former Conservative minister. “I am hearing from constituents who say because of this issue they will never be voting for us again.”
Another senior Tory remarked: “Brexit was all about controlling our borders and the small boats crisis reinforces this sense of things spiralling out of control.”
As the Brexit party, Reform maintained an uneasy truce with the Conservatives. In the lead up to the 2019 general election, then party leader Farage did not field candidates in the 317 seats won by the Tories in 2017 on the proviso that then prime minister Boris Johnson stuck to his promises on Brexit, a move that was seen as unifying the rightwing vote.
But at the next general election, which must be held by January 2025, there will be no such agreement. “We have made it very clear that we have got around 630 candidates standing everywhere except Northern Ireland and we are not doing a deal with anyone,” Tice said. “We stood aside for [the Conservatives] and did the right thing in 2019, they had their chance, we gave them a big majority, they have blown it, they have messed up.”
Reform will set its electoral ambitions on what Tice called the “industrial heartlands” largely in the midlands and north of England and pro-Brexit coastal communities in the east and west of England. He is planning to stand in Hartlepool, where the incumbent is Jill Mortimer, who became the first Conservative to win the seat since its creation in the 1970s when she took it from Labour in a by-election in 2021.
In the eyes of many Tory MPs the landslide 80-seat majority the Conservatives achieved in 2019 under Johnson — a combination of winning both traditional Tory seats in the south and so-called “Red Wall” seats from Labour in the midlands and north of England — now appears fragile.
“Boris Johnson managed to squeeze the [Brexit] vote in the 2019 general election,” said Professor Sir John Curtice professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. “Now Leave voting Tory voters are among the most volatile of the Conservative base, with many not having a long standing record of backing the party,” he added.
“If people are fed up and feel like we aren’t really enacting Conservative policies then Reform is the obvious answer,” said one senior Tory. He warned his party could repeat the mistake of former prime minister David Cameron, who underestimated the UK Independence party’s role when Farage was leader in delivering the Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum. “Yes the election is far away but these things build in the background. Cameron didn’t take the Ukip threat seriously and look what happened there.”.
Other Conservative MPs said the perceived failure of their party to articulate tangible success on policies relating to Brexit has angered some Tory leaning voters.
Notably, when reports emerged late last year that prime minister Rishi Sunak’s administration was inclined towards a Swiss-style, close relationship with the EU, Farage — who remains president of Reform — warned that the Tories would be “obliterated”, sparking speculation that he was planning a return to frontline politics.
“There is a strong sense in Leave voting areas that basically Brexit is being betrayed,” Tice added. “The borders haven’t been controlled, they haven’t seen any economic benefits, they haven’t seen any deregulation benefits, the fishing community got shafted . . . Northern Ireland is in limbo and it is a mess”.
Pollsters argue that the party’s rise is symptomatic of wider trends at this stage in the electoral cycle, with voters exploring their options after 12 years of Conservative rule.
“Without Nigel Farage, the party isn’t getting as much traction as they would — but they are recipients of protest votes from frustrated Tory leaning voters,” said Anthony Wells, director of YouGov’s political and social opinion polling. “It is less to do with what Reform is doing to attract voters and more to do with what the Tories are doing to push voters away.”
Tice believes that the growing popularity of Reform is a positive for British democracy, offering more choice to disillusioned Conservatives.
“Competition is good, disrupters are good,” he said “People didn’t believe me when I said that we were going to stand everywhere but I think they are taking us seriously now.”