The Conservative party is under threat from a rightwing insurgency after a “drag to the left” under Rishi Sunak, one of its biggest recent donors has warned, amid growing tensions on the Tory right.
Peter Cruddas, the peer who has given the party more than £3.5m, said the Conservatives were “no longer a centre-right party” under Sunak, adding that he refused to back it financially until it changed course.
His intervention comes as the latest Opinium poll for the Observer shows support for Reform, the successor to the Brexit party, is up to 8% of the vote – up 2 points and almost neck-and-neck with the Lib Dems. The poll also found that a fifth of voters (19%) are considering voting for Reform. This includes 23% of 2019 Conservative voters and 11% of 2019 Labour voters.
In a sign of the political pressures already facing Sunak, Cruddas, a former Tory co-treasurer, said that the recent tax-raising budget, as well as policies over Brexit and immigration, meant the party could face a threat from Reform should Nigel Farage opt to lead it in the run-up to the next election.
“There is a conduit for right-leaning, centre-right people to find a new home and that’s the Reform party, especially if Farage comes out and says he is going to lead the Reform party,” he told the Observer. “What you’re seeing today is a coup and a hijacking of the Conservative party by centre-left leaning people. The senior Conservatives that I’ve spoken to are also frustrated. Something’s going to come to a head because the members don’t want Rishi Sunak. The odds are stacked against him.
“So long as the party is a centre-left party, then I don’t consider it a Conservative party. I will donate to the Conservative party, the true Conservative party, which is a centre-right party. I will not donate to any centre-left party.”
Meanwhile, Richard Tice, the current Reform leader, told the Observer the Tories had “betrayed the country” including over Brexit. “I want the Tories out,” he said. “I want them destroyed. They have ruined our economy. People are underestimating us. They don’t believe we will stand in 630 seats. I have already got 600.”
He added: “Nigel [Farage] rang me up the other day and said the day we get 8%, remember this day. It took Ukip 19 years to get to 8%.”
The challenge demonstrates the difficulties facing Sunak as he attempts to stabilise his party’s fortunes, end internal feuding and restore faith in the economy. Some Tories believe that having won huge numbers of pro-Brexit voters at the last election, they are now more vulnerable to the emergence of a party on the right. While Reform’s support remains low, it could end up costing the Tories seats should it win over a chunk of voters.
MPs told the Observer that they believed the issue of refugees crossing the Channel in small boats risked driving voters to back Reform. Jonathan Gullis, the red wall Tory MP who led a rebellion over asylum policies last week, warned there would be political consequences for failing to tackle the issue.
“If the Conservative party doesn’t deliver on stopping illegal immigration and getting people deported to Rwanda, Albania and other safe countries, the Conservative party will be sacked by the electorate and Rishi Sunak will be the leader of the opposition, not the prime minister, after the next general election,” he said. “Reform will come along, take enough of our vote to let Labour sneak through the middle and get back into power. We need to show that we can deliver.”
A former cabinet minister said: “[MPs] are right to worry. If we fail to deliver on small boats, that flank will be wide open. But in fairness to the government, they have shown clear direction in this regard.”
Cruddas, who was handed his peerage by Boris Johnson, led a campaign over the summer to have Johnson reinstated as a leadership candidate. He is now funding the newly-formed Conservative Democratic Organisation, which aims to give members more power over MP selections and leadership elections. He said that thousands of members were already involved and that he would use his “deep pockets” to ensure the party changed course.
“What we’ve seen since 2010 is an engineering of the Conservative party to take us to the centre, possibly to the left, and there’s a lot of MPs out there that we consider are not Conservative,” he said. “We are a centre-right, Conservative organisation that wants to empower the members and stick to our principles. We think the Conservative party has been infiltrated by non-Conservatives.
“Jeremy Hunt, who failed twice to become leader of the party, is now chancellor of the exchequer. Following that anti-Conservative budget, it convinced me that the Conservative party now is no longer a centre-right party.”
Other senior Tories are urging their colleagues not to panic over a potential threat from the right. David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said: “The best vaccination against extreme parties is the success of sensible policies. The more successful the government’s policies are on economics and on migrants, the safer my colleagues will be in their seats from any attack from any direction. The most important thing for them to remember is not to distract from the delivery of that success in the next six months to a year.”
The threat from the right played a major role in the toppling of previous Tory leaders David Cameron and Theresa May. The success of Ukip in 2014 European elections contributed to Cameron’s decision to hold the EU referendum. Meanwhile, May was finally removed after the Brexit party secured 30% of the vote in the 2019 European elections. Conservatives concerned about the current threat stress that Reform would only need to secure a fraction of that support to have an impact on the Tory performance at the next election.