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Should I vote Reform?

In Europe
June 10, 2024

A few weeks ago I asked readers if I should vote Tory. Now the question is, should I vote Reform? The debate in my head is no longer about who will form the next government – that’s over, it’s Labour – but who small-c conservatives would prefer to see as the opposition.

It’s not inconceivable that on July 4, the Tories will have fewer seats than the Lib Dems and fewer votes than Reform. In that event, their historic claim to be the monopoly party of the centre-Right is dead.

Last week kicked life into a boring election. Rishi had a good debate but Nigel Farage stole the show by taking back control of Reform and announcing a bid for Clacton-on-Sea. Then Sunak skipped D-Day. He has my sympathy: I hate long ceremonies and once invented a car accident to get out of a wedding. But his early departure seemed designed to infuriate the Tory base, to remind them how artless and unempathetic Rishi really is. The heirs of Blair have professionalised British politics to the point of amateurism.

To add insult to injury, the PM has used his last days in office to parachute chums and allies into safe seats. Happily, many of them will lose. Sadly, enough might win to ensure the parliamentary rump that survives the July massacre will be dominated by liberals who think the Tories went down in flames because they didn’t spend enough, tax enough or let in enough immigrants.

It is this stupidity, so predictable, that makes one want to clear out the lot of ‘em in one fell swoop.

I feel like a toothless sans-culottes surveying a row of juicy heads: to the guillotine, thwack, thwack, thwack!

But here’s the thing: conservatives are not revolutionaries, we’re monarchists. We like peace and order, to take a good, hard look before we leap. What, then, is this thing called Reform?

Most polls indicate a surge in support, but to varying heights. Savanta puts them on just 11 per cent; YouGov has Reform two points behind the Tories at 17; Redfield & Wilton says they are ahead among men and the elderly. If a crossover in poll position is possible, it needs to happen soon – for this is manifesto week, which will dominate the headlines.

Farage depends on free media for publicity. He thrives on controversy. Reminded by Laura Kuenssberg that one of his advisers has a conviction for fraud, he said he believes in forgiveness and sticks by his friends (bravo).

During the seven-way debate last Friday – at which Penny Mordaunt’s hairdo resembled a bird of prey, mid-flight – he answered the immigration question with a precise and disturbing recital of numbers.

The decision of Labour and Tories to run super-controlled presidential campaigns now looks like a gamble when faced by a Teflon entertainer who could sell a used car to Arthur Daley – and the triumph of personality disguises Reform’s problems.

For one, the party is nothing without Nigel. Critics call it a shell company, owned by Farage but till recently reliant upon Richard Tice’s money: in mid-May it was reported that Tice had been responsible for around 80 per cent of its declared funding in loans and donations since 2021.

This helps explain its underwhelming performance in by-elections; Reform didn’t command the volunteers or infrastructure necessary to compete, and it lacked the galvanising issue of Brexit.

It is riven by squabbles. When Farage announced he was running for Clacton, Reform’s current candidate, Tony Mack, dutifully stepped aside – the last time I saw Mack, he was on top of the Reform bus, waving at punters. Days later, he announced he would run as an independent candidate instead. He shared a post on Facebook that denounced “sneaky f*****s who disguise themselves as good people”.

I met a lot of nice, fun Reformers in Clacton. I also met some racists, plus fans of Tommy Robinson. In the past decade, Ukip/Brexit Party/Reform has played an important, uncredited role of defusing the far-Right by channeling anger into legitimate politics – but a party defined by a yearning for sovereignty will always be a magnet for deplorables, and this might be the theme that brings Reform’s honeymoon to an end.

Journalists have already tracked down candidates who have said asylum seekers are natural liars or compared black people to monkeys. In defence of Reform, it’s been quick to ditch bigots – and the Green Party, hardly Right wing, has also been forced to take action against candidates accused of anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, if Blue Wall voters find Reform illiberal, Red Wall voters might have been surprised to hear Nigel at the debate calling for a new funding structure for the NHS. The party’s website suggests this means expanding private sector capacity rather than selling off wards to Tesco, but the populist Right has often struggled to reconcile a poor man’s cultural values with a rich man’s economics – and Farage is at heart a dissident Thatcherite. Labour’s attack lines write themselves.

In short, those weighing up replacing the Tories with Reform are swapping a party with history, experience and breadth with a one-man band totally unacceptable to core parts of the electorate (and catnip to Scottish nationalists).

Nevertheless, the prospect of Reform winning seats, however few, changes the way one thinks about the future of the British Right. I suspect it will involve not a mass defection to Reform, but a reconciliation of Reform and the Conservatives, producing a hybrid movement that shifts politics decisively towards the populism we see on the Continent.

The legacy of Brexit is to make us more politically European. Some day, Prime Minister Miriam Cates shall elevate Nigel Farage to the Lords.

Effecting this long-term realignment is far more interesting than the current election. I’m unmoved by the thought of Starmer winning. Despite some light hysteria, no one believes he’s a socialist, and there’s nothing the Tories say Labour might do that the Tories haven’t already done in historic numbers.

That’s why the party label is discredited. Millions of us will vote candidate-by-candidate, combing through individual voting records or statements – hardcore Tories, Reform or the Social Democratic Party – to select the MP we’d most like to have in place when the British conservative movement is rebuilt après le déluge.

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