Three years ago last week, Boris Johnson stormed to victory in an election fought by the Conservatives under the simple slogan: “Get Brexit done.” The morning after, the then prime minister urged everyone to “find closure” on the European question that had split his party and country for so long.
He called on the British people to unite, to “let the healing begin” and to focus on the NHS. The Tories had broken through the “red wall”. They seemed all-powerful. It was Labour that faced existential questions.
Now, with about two years to go until the probable date of the next election and with Johnson and his successor, Liz Truss, both ousted by their own MPs, Labour is between 15 and 20 percentage points ahead in the polls at the end of 2022.
The NHS is on its knees and beset by strikes. It is desperately short of money and staff, with nurses, doctors and paramedics leaving in their thousands. Not a penny of the £350m a week that Johnson said Brexit would release for the health service has ever been seen. Increasingly, the whole Brexit endeavour is viewed by business leaders and economists as a self-inflicted disaster that has severely weakened the British economy, despite continued claims to the contrary by former Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg on the BBC’s Question Time last week.
For Brexiters who followed Johnson, it was not supposed to be like this. He had promised them a new dawn of independence, deregulation, prosperity based on global trade deals and lower taxes. Instead, the reality is one of diminishing UK influence, dud trade deals or none at all (notably with the US), extra bureaucracy, reduced exports, lower gross domestic product and higher taxes.
Brexit and the fear of a Jeremy Corbyn government helped power the Tories to an 80-seat majority. But disgruntled Brexit supporters are crying betrayal. They make the case that Brexit has been catastrophically mishandled and needs new management. Worryingly for Tory MPs, that is precisely what is being offered by Reform UK, the latest incarnation of the Brexit party, which stands at 8% in Sunday’s Opinium poll for the Observer – 1 point behind the Liberal Democrats and rising.
Before the party is even particularly well known, 19% of all voters questioned by Opinium said they would consider voting for Reform UK and its populist agenda on immigration, doing Brexit properly and lowering taxes, including 23% of 2019 Conservative voters and 11% of 2019 Labour voters.
One such convert is businessman David White from Barnsley. Until a few days ago he was a Tory councillor in the South Yorkshire town, but then defected and joined Reform UK. He is one of 9,000 nationally who the party’s leader, Richard Tice, says have signed up over the last two months.
Reform UK has a broad range of policies beyond doing Brexit better, such as offering a pay rise to nurses by exempting them from the basic rate of income tax for three years.
“When I announced the switch to Reform, I looked at my Facebook page with a little bit of trepidation,” says White. “I was expecting a bit of stick, but I had massive support, even from core Conservatives. Even the trolls that normally have a go didn’t say anything. I think people suddenly realised that Reform is the real threat in the next elections.”
He puts immigration top of his list. “Immigration is one of the main issues from Brexit that people just don’t feel has been sorted out at all. It’s off the scale. There’s a hotel down the road that’s full. I got some video sent to me the other night of immigrants in this hotel outside playing football at midnight with the floodlights on and drinking coffee, and that just rankles with people.”
Throughout this part of South Yorkshire, as across much of the red wall, there is disillusion with Labour as well as the Tories. Lynne Dunning has lived nearby in the former mining village of Goldthorpe, eight miles from Barnsley, for 47 years.
“People feel abandoned by both parties,” she says. “And I voted for Brexit, but what we’ve got isn’t what people voted for. It doesn’t seem to have happened as it was promised. I think a lot of people feel like that.”
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It is very early days for Tice’s party – but Dunning’s disillusion is exactly the kind of sentiment he is seeking to tap into. He calls the Conservatives “Consocialists” and says the two main parties are indistinguishable in the bland left-of-centre ground. This way, he hopes to defuse the fear among Tories that voting for an insurgent party such as his might let in a leftwing Labour government.
“They are both variants of socialism,” says Tice. “You have got the Consocialists and then there are the red socialists. There is no difference.” He says the Tories have betrayed Brexit and that he wants to destroy them. “I want the Tories out. I want them destroyed. I think they have ruined our economy. Don’t underestimate us. They have deeply, deeply damaged this country. I am 58. The country has never been in a worse state.”
Tory MPs and commentators insist they are not panicking about Reform UK – not yet, at least. Charles Walker, the MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, says: “They are not yet a problem but if they are around at the general election and we have not sorted our problems out [inflation, the economy, small boats] then they will be.”
Paul Goodman, the former Tory MP who now edits the ConservativeHome website, says the real worry was former party leader Nigel Farage returning to front up Reform UK. “My sense is that most Conservative MPs are not frightened of Richard Tice but would be frightened of Farage.”
Another, serving Conservative MP in a northern seat with many Brexit voters agrees. He says: “I don’t see them as a huge problem right now but if Farage came along to lead them, it would be different.” The MP, who wishes to remain anonymous, adds: “Keep my name out of it. I don’t them want to target me.”
For Tories less preoccupied with Brexit but concerned about what they see as their party’s broader centrist drift, Reform UK is also proving attractive, with its deliberately wide policy offerings.
Kabeer Kher, a mortgage adviser who lives in Norfolk, joined the Conservatives in 2015 and remained a member until a few months ago, when he was tipped over the edge into joining Reform UK. “For me, the Conservatives have just become blue Labour now,” he says. “I don’t understand how they can have the policies they have, and still call themselves the Conservative party – they’ve just abandoned their principles.”
He complains about green policies, tax and housing. “The net-zero goals they’ve set for reducing emissions have not been accompanied by any thought about where we were going to get the electricity power generation to actually facilitate that.
“Taxes on landlords have absolutely gone through the roof. The supply of rental properties has gone through the floor. I’ve got landlords now calling me every week saying: ‘I want to sell my property – can you recommend an estate agent?’ Meanwhile, business rates are killing the high street. There’s no long-term thinking on anything.”
Kher believes that it is the speed at which the green agenda is being pushed through by the government that will help drive voters to Reform UK: “We will pick up a lot of their voters. The Reform party is now the only party that doesn’t subscribe to the green agenda and the speed with which they’re doing it.”
Among the Tory grassroots, who did not get a chance to vote for Truss’s successor and feel they had Rishi Sunak foisted upon them, there are concerns that under the new prime minister they are becoming the party of high taxes and a big state. They also feel disenfranchised.
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A group of prominent figures on the right have now launched an attempt to seize greater control over the party to stop what they regard as a shift to the left – to a social democrat type of Tory party.
Peter Cruddas, a Tory peer and former party treasurer, who has donated more than £3.5m to the Tories, is now involved in the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), which aims to hand members more power over MP selections and leadership elections. He was given his peerage by Johnson, who he believes should never have been removed as leader. He warned that a “drag to the left by the current leadership” was opening the party up to a political threat from a Ukip-style party on the right.
“Absolutely, I do fear that,” says Lord Cruddas. “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 [it]. If Conservatives and Conservative party members want to be a centre-left party, then that’s up to them. But then I think you’ll see major changes in the political landscape. Because whether you agree with it or not, I believe that this country is a centre-right-leaning electorate.
“What you’re seeing today is a coup and a hijacking of the Conservative party by centre-left leaning people. They don’t outnumber those on the centre right. The senior Conservatives that I’ve spoken to are also frustrated as well.
“Something’s going to come to a head because the members don’t want Rishi Sunak. They didn’t vote for him and he was imposed upon the Conservative party. The odds are stacked against him, but he’s there under false pretences.”
Cruddas adds: “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.
“We are a centre-right, Conservative organisation that wants to empower the members and stick to our principles. There are centre-right politicians, but we don’t think we’re being led by Conservatives. And we think the Conservative party has been infiltrated by non-Conservatives.”
For Cruddas, the feelings of Brexit betrayal contribute to his discontent. “We voted for Brexit. We didn’t vote to annex Northern Ireland to be part of the European Union. And we need to continue to control our borders. These are centre-right policies that the country voted for. And now, they’ve not happened and we’re going to get punished at the polls. And we want the world to know that this is not what the members want.”
With these kind of views now fairly common in the Tory party, Tice is relishing the prospect of more defections. “We are potentially seeing the dying days of the last majority Tory government in our lifetime,” he says. “And that is an exciting thought.”