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Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Good morning. The Commons is in recess, which sometimes gives party leaders a break from constant plotting and discontent. Sometimes, on the other hand, their backbenchers come back even more jumpy — which may be the case this time owing to factors that will embolden those Tories worried about their voters jumping ship to Reform UK.
The radical right
With two by-elections on Thursday this week and the run-up to May’s local and mayoral elections coming too, the Conservative leadership has some looming pinch points. If Tory MPs and activists are jumpy already because of the consistently fat polling lead for Labour, this discontent will only worsen if some or all of these electoral tests go badly for Rishi Sunak and his strategists.
After last week’s launch of the Liz Truss “Pop Cons” and with Reform UK up to 9.8 per cent in our FT poll of polls (you can see the latest chart at the foot of this newsletter), it’s hard to ignore all this activity on the radical right. What’s really going on though, given that many wise political heads have said in the past few months they don’t believe the Reform poll ratings are real?
First off, though, a pithy word from my colleague Robert Shrimsley who explained succinctly why everyone in the UK should care about this (even if Truss and Nigel Farage are not your particular bag). On the latest edition of our Political Fix podcast Robert pointed out: “What we’re actually watching in real time is the reconstituting of the Conservative party. And since they tend to win elections more often than they lose them, this matters.”
Over the weekend, Farage, not the leader of Reform but its president and éminence grise, boasted in a long interview that his phone constantly pinged with messages from Tory MPs. Because they want to jump ship? Because they want him to take the leap and stand for election this year so that he can join their party and stage a takeover? He suggested it could be any one of various routes to exactly what Robert predicted, “the reconstituting of the Conservative party”, pulling it in a dramatically rightward, populist direction.
Analysts have tended to think the pollsters are getting a misleadingly high rating for Reform: disgruntled Tories might either return to the fold to try to stop Labour or stay at home, and non-voters on the right might also, yes, not actually vote. A recent poll rating of only 18 per cent in Clacton-on-Sea, the seat Farage seems to be considering if he runs anywhere (don’t forget he’s failed to get elected as an MP an amazing seven times), also invites scepticism about how great the “surge” really is.
But a new, in-depth study by James Kanagasooriam at FocalData released in the past few days shows the picture is more complex than it first appears. Reform’s strands of support are not merely responding to a “Farage bat signal”, nor are they all disgruntled Conservatives. Kanagasooriam writes:
It’s wrong to think that the rise of Reform is purely down to disaffected Tory supporters. Only around half (54%) of Reform supporters choose anti-Conservative “push” options, with the other half (46%) choosing pro-Reform party “pull” responses.
In terms of the policies they want, you can see how this group poses a puzzle for a Sunak-led Conservative campaign: Reform supporters are statist and economically nationalist and ex-Tory Reform supporters are socially authoritarian and economically leftwing.
But there’s a lot of overlap in attitudes between Tory voters and Reform voters, as suggested by FocalData’s chart below. This spells trouble, says Kanagasooriam:
A lookalike party that lends votes when it’s with you can balloon the party above 33/34 per cent, but can crater you if they’re ascendant.
I found it extremely interesting talking to a senior Sunak aide about whether the Tories need to do a deal with Richard Tice, Reform’s party leader, to get him to stand down in Tory seats (the predecessor Brexit party did so in 2019, which hugely helped Boris Johnson secure his majority). His answer: “We will do a deal with Reform UK voters.” In other words, throw some red meat in terms of policies and messages to the right. Will this work, though? It never really buys them off in the end, as I wrote in Saturday’s FT here.
When the results come in from the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections on Friday morning, there could be extremely long faces in Tory circles if these once-safe seats fall to Labour — especially if Reform splits the vote to the right.
Maybe they (and Inside Politics readers!) should cheer themselves up by watching the latest episode of Sketchy Politics, in which Robert and I “horse about” explaining how the election race is shaping up.
Now try this
It’s hard to keep up with Stephen’s cultural life but nice when I can actually join in with his enthusiasms. Before he went on leave we debated the merits of Sea of Tranquility, the slim 2023 novel from Emily St John Mandel. It’s about colonising the moon and is a strange semi-sequel to The Glass Hotel (my review of the earlier work from 2020 is here). I recommend her latest for a great joke about a time-travelling cat and also for its pandemic-era spookiness — but we agreed it isn’t quite up to the previous outing of some of these characters. Now I’ve moved on to Zadie Smith’s The Fraud (reviewed by Stephen in August) and happily I have the rest of the week off to savour it — this one is fantastic if, like me, you are a fan of Victoriana.
Top stories today
UK’s visa costs ‘a tax on talent’ | The EU will tell the UK that it must ease visa procedures and costs for scientists or risk missing out on the full benefits of the Horizon Europe research programme.
Non-dom mods | Jonathan Reynolds, shadow business spokesman, has vowed that a future Labour government would create a modern tax system for people genuinely living in the UK for a short period of time, to replace Britain’s “colonial-era” non-dom regime.
Tories flee the ship | Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing an exodus of MPs that will outstrip the number of losses his party suffered ahead of its landslide defeat in the 1997 general election as he heads to the polls this year.
Labour under pressure over Rochdale candidate’s Israel remarks | Keir Starmer is facing mounting political pressure to distance Labour from its candidate in the Rochdale by-election, after Azhar Ali reportedly claimed the Hamas attack on October 7 was an Israeli conspiracy in a secret recording obtained by the Mail on Sunday. Ali yesterday admitted his comments on Israel were “inexcusable” and apologised.
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