Patrick O’Flynn Patrick O’Flynn

Reform is rapidly gaining on the Tories

Nigel Farage (Credit: Getty images)

The great British public seems to have got over its feelings of anger and disillusionment towards the Conservative party. It is mainly just laughing at the Tories now. The descent into outright ridiculousness brought about by the centrist ‘sensibles’ who currently run the Tory show came across loud and clear in last night’s seven-way ITV debate.

Twice the audience responded with spontaneous giggles at the answers given by Penny Mordaunt. The first burst of titters came when she described our education system as world class. In fact, there is much international data to back this up, at least for England where Conservative reforms have paid dividends in rising standards. But such is the extent of public derision for the Tories that almost nobody seems prepared to believe this.

Then, the most raucous burst of laughter came when Mordaunt was challenged by Nigel Farage on the betrayal of promises to reduce immigration made in four successive previous Tory manifestos. Why, asked Farage, would anyone believe the same promise now being made for a fifth time? ‘Because of the record of this prime minister,’ she said – bringing the house down in the process. ‘Enough, that’s fine, I’m happy,’ replied a delighted Farage.

His tail was up anyway given that, less than an hour before the debate began, a new YouGov poll had for the first time put Reform ahead of the Tories (by 19 points to 18). It was just one poll, and within the margin of error, but it is hugely symbolic. Especially as Farage had confidently predicted such a ‘crossover’ opinion survey when he launched his campaign in Clacton.

Elections guru John Curtice, an altogether more objective source, this morning told the BBC that polls taken since the start of this week showed a clear trend of the Conservatives losing further ground, Labour also dropping back a bit and both Reform and the Liberal Democrats rising. A pollster texted me to say he thought that under YouGov’s old methodology – they have controversially just changed the way they weight their data – the scores from the latest poll would have been Reform 18, Conservative 15.

Reform is the perfect receptacle for a giant right-wing protest vote

The notion that the most successful party in the history of democratic politics anywhere on the planet could record such a poll score midway through a general election campaign is utterly extraordinary. It is surely also proof of a contention that I have been advancing in these pages for many months: that in the current era Tory centrism of the kind that took David Cameron into Downing Street 14 years ago and is now being advanced by Rishi Sunak holds no widespread appeal. The so-called ‘centrist dads’ have all defected to Labour or the Lib Dems and aren’t coming back anytime soon. Meanwhile, the natural Tory vote demands much stronger responses to the anxieties of the age – excessive immigration, the rise of radical Islam and a breakdown in everyday law and order being chief among them.

The Reform party gets all this and in Farage has a brilliant campaigner to let the relevant voters know that it feels their pain. Whether it would actually be capable of governing sensibly hardly matters: it is the perfect receptacle for a giant right-wing protest vote.

The Conservatives, by contrast, have Sunak, who has turned out to be as clueless a campaigner as he is a strategist. Since he called the election everything seems to have gone wrong: another set of gargantuan legal migration figures landed with a thump, illegal migration via the Channel boats was shown to have hit a record high, the economy is flat-lining again according to new official statistics and NHS waiting lists are pushing even further upwards. 

In an era when most voters are full of angst about an obvious social recession that is dragging down non-pecuniary living standards, he has fallen back on a narrow and frankly unbelievable pitch about tax cuts. 

When Sunak brought back David Cameron and sacked Suella Braverman last November it told voters on the right all they needed to know about his administration. ‘Daddy’s home,’ purred one centrist Tory commentator. For the mass of the right-leaning electorate this was exactly the problem. The Tories may have further yet to fall.