Is Tory’s defection to Reform UK the beginning of a trickle – or a flood?

Rishi Sunak - Justin Tallis/AFP
Rishi Sunak - Justin Tallis/AFP

Rishi Sunak’s strategy to project competence since replacing Liz Truss as Prime Minister seven weeks ago has been to keep a low profile and get on with the job.

But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the lack of visibility from the new leader – coupled with a sense of drift over public sector strikes and immigration – means Tory supporters are starting to vote with their feet.

On Thursday, The Telegraph revealed that Cllr David White has resigned from his role as the Conservative Party’s South Yorkshire area chairman and will be standing for Reform UK in Barnsley at the next election.

He said: “The Conservative Party has changed, with them being unable or unwilling to make the big decisions. I am convinced that they are not in tune with the working people here in Barnsley and across the UK.”

The party grassroots have every right to grumble. They have been saddled with a leader in Mr Sunak for whom they have not voted and a Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, who has driven up taxes to eye-watering levels.

It seems barely believable that Conservative Central Office should think that now is the time to increase membership fees by 56 per cent to £35, ending a 16-year freeze.

Justin Tomlinson MP, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party until July, said it was an “absolutely stupid idea”, and John Strafford, who runs the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, said members were now refusing to renew on Jan 1.

It is little surprise that many of these disaffected Tory supporters are falling into the welcoming arms of Reform UK, which emerged from the ashes of the Brexit Party after the 2019 general election.

Richard Tice, the party’s leader, strongly hinted that he is in talks with other councillors and even Tory MPs about defecting. “More discussions are ongoing across the board,” he said.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is – Nigel Farage ran a similar operation when the UK Independence Party was causing headaches for David Cameron, the then-Tory leader, a decade ago.

Reform UK has been polling at around nine per cent for several weeks now as voters have warmed to its offering of lower taxes, more secure borders and cheaper energy.

But how much more would the party be polling if Mr Farage could be persuaded to put his career at GB News on ice and re-enter the political fray?

Nigel Farage - Olivier Touron/AFP
Nigel Farage - Olivier Touron/AFP

Luke Tryl, the UK director of More in Common, a think tank, told me on the Chopper’s Politics podcast that a return by Mr Farage could turbo-charge Reform’s support.

“He adds something. When you test some Reform policies, they still poll reasonably well with that chunk of people – but without that charismatic figurehead, it doesn't quite push them over the top,” said Mr Tryl.

“There is a big pool of voters, and particularly those voters who were disillusioned with the Labour Party at the last election and moved to the Tories. They don’t feel the Tories have lived up to their promises and are now looking for something new, and that Farage party could be it.”

Senior Tories tried to brush off the defection of Cllr White on Thursday. One senior Tory MP said that it was was “inevitable” that some Brexit-supporting Conservatives would start to return to a Farage-linked party. A Conservative Party spokesman said: “We look forward to taking the seat off him next time he’s up for election.”

But behind this bravado lies a worrying question for Mr Sunak and his team – is his departure the beginning of a trickle of similar defections, or a flood?