Why Reform UK could take crucial general election votes off Rishi Sunak

The UK's leading election pollster Professor Sir John Curtice says the biggest loss of Conservative votes is likely to go to Reform UK.

File photo dated 08/04/24 of Reform UK leader Richard Tice, the multimillionaire former Tory donor now hoping to spoil the Conservatives' party on election night. The one-time property developer inherited the leadership of Reform UK from Nigel Farage when he decided to step back from frontline politics in the aftermath of Britain???s withdrawal from the EU. Issue date: Thursday May 23, 2024.
Reform UK could prove a challenge to the Conservatives by taking valuable votes from them in the election. (PA)

The Reform UK party could be set to take crucial votes off Rishi Sunak's Conservative Party in the forthcoming general election, the UK's foremost election expert has said.

Reform UK was set up in 2018 as the Brexit Party and was led by Nigel Farage during the 2019 election campaign before he stepped down in 2021 and it was renamed Reform UK

A significant feature of that election saw the party not field any candidates in the 317 seats that had been won by the Conservative Party at the previous election in 2017. At the time, Farage said the decision was made not to split the Leave vote and to ensure Boris Johnson would stick to his promises on delivering Brexit.

This time, however, the party – which is now led by businessman Richard Tice – has made no such electoral pact with the Tories.

According to Professor Sir John Curtice, that means Reform UK could be a significant challenge to Sunak when it comes to taking votes from the Tories in the 4 July election.

The polling expert said polls had previously suggested that the biggest loss of support of 2019 Conservative voters was to Reform – with one in five 2019 Conservative voters saying they would vote for Reform, compared to just one in six switching to Labour.

"In terms of taking votes off the Conservatives as opposed to seats, the biggest challenge will potentially come from Reform," he told BBC Radio 4. "Certainly the polls at the moment are saying that the biggest loss of support of 2019 Conservative voters is actually to Reform – around one in five 2019 Conservative voters saying they’re going to vote Reform, with only one in six switching to Labour.

"But of course actually winning seats for Reform is a difficult challenge because the vote will tend to be quite evenly spread."

Long-running speculation over whether Farage would stand as a candidate or front the party's campaign had continued to grow following Sunak's announcement, but on Thursday morning the former Brexit Party leader announced he would not be standing.

The latest YouGov/Times voting intention poll – with fieldwork carried out before Sunak called the general election – put the Conservatives on 21% (up one percentage point from its previous poll on 15-16 May) while Labour are on 46% (-1 percentage point).

It put Reform UK on 12% (+1 percentage point), the Lib Dems on 9% (no change) and the Greens on 7% (-1).

Labour's lead over the Conservatives is similar to as it has been for most of the last 18 months, and many of the major parties' polls have remained relatively stable. But Reform has enjoyed a rise in popularity in recent months, going from an average of around 6% in summer 2023 to double that rating.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - APRIL 16: Nigel Farage, honorary president of the Reform UK party, gives a speech on Day 1 of The National Conservatism Conference at the Claridge on April 16, 2024 in Brussels, Belgium. The National Conservatism (NatCon) conference, attended by 500 delegates over two days, features speeches from former UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, among others. Originally slated for Concert Noble, the venue was changed due to pressure from Brussels Mayor Philippe Close. (Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage has said he will not stand as a candidate for Reform in the general election. (Getty)

On Thursday morning, Farage confirmed he would not be standing as a candidate in the general election but will “do my bit to help” the party in the campaign.

The party’s honorary president said in a statement posted on X on Thursday: “I have thought long and hard as to whether I should stand in the upcoming general election.

“As honorary president of Reform UK, I am fully supportive of Richard Tice’s leadership and urge voters to put their trust in him and Lee Anderson.

“I will do my bit to help in the campaign, but it is not the right time for me to go any further than that.

“Important though the general election is, the contest in the United States of America on November 5 has huge global significance. A strong America as a close ally is vital for our peace and security. I intend to help with the grassroots campaign in the USA in any way that I can.

“The choice between Labour and the Conservatives is uninspiring, and only Reform have the radical agenda that is needed to end decline in this country.”

Polls have previously suggested that Farage's return to frontline politics via Reform could have an impact on support for the party, Curtice suggested. But he said the boost was not necessarily something the party needs, given its rise in popularity.

He cited figures from YouGov in autumn 2023 that suggested that if Farage was to lead Reform, it could double the party's vote from 6%.

"However, opinion polls already have Reform at 11/12%," he added. "So what additional impact Nigel Farage might have in the current circumstances, who knows?

"In any event, even if he doesn’t stand and even if Reform do get squeezed, one crucial thing to remember is the Brexit party under Nigel Farage's leadership did not fight Conservative-held constituencies back in 2019.

"Richard Tice is determined to fight them this time so even a Reform Party at 5% could potentially be taking 5, 6, 7% of the vote away from the Conservatives in the seats they’re trying to defend.

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