Tories threatened by two-front war for votes

by Prof Richard Rose, 30 December 2022

Although the fight for control of British government is between a pair of adversaries, Rishi Sunak now faces the risk of a war on two fronts to win votes. Current opinion polls show that the right-wing populist Reform Party threatens to take enough votes from Tory MPs to deliver dozens of seats to the Labour Party.

The Reform Party has no hope of winning parliamentary seats at the next general election. Its primary aim is to influence policy by putting pressure on Conservative prime ministers to adopt right-wing policies. As the Brexit Party it got Boris Johnson to pledge prompt British withdrawal from the European Union by offering to withdraw its candidates from Conservative-held seats. It did so, thereby helping Johnson win a solid majority for getting Brexit done.

Wih EU withdrawal achieved, the Brexit Party changed its name to Reform and become a right-wing protest party campaigning against strict lockdown policies and the Conservative government's inability to control inflation. It also remains vigilant against any government concessions to Brussels in order to deal with post-Brexit problems in Northern Ireland and of British businesses trading with European countries.

The Reform Party has not changed its tactics – putting pressure on the Conservatives by threatening to nominate Reform candidates that will split the Tory vote. It only needs to attract a small percentage of defectors from the Conservative ranks to deliver marginal seats to Labour. The average Reform support was 6.2 percent in December polls, This is equivalent to one-seventh of the vote the Conservatives won in 2019.

Probability of Parliamentary outcomes January 2023

The fine-grain constituency analysis of Electoral Calculus predicts that the current level of Reform support is sufficient to deliver 26 seats to Labour. The great majority are South of England seats just within commuter distance of London or East Anglian seats. Hardly any are red wall constituencies that were unexpected Tory gains in 2019. Labour looks likely to regain them without requiring the help of Reform.

The two-front war against the Conservative government means that Keir Starmer's party is not fighting alone to turn Rishi Sunak's government out of office. If the Reform Party delivered 26 seats to Labour this would reduce the Conservatives to 339 MPs. If that happened, Labour would only need to win 15 additional seats for the Conservatives to lose their absolute majority in the House of Commons.

Labour is currently riding high enough in the opinion polls so that it does not need the Reform Party to open up a second front in order to gain control of Downing Street. Its average support of 46.3 percent in the December polls would give Labour more MPs than it has ever had before.

Rishi Sunak could seek to regain support that his immediate predecessors lost by adopting positions more attractive to Labour or Liberal Democrat voters. But because he is fighting a war on two fronts, this would leave him vulnerable to losing support to Reform candidates and increasing Labour's majority.

Richard Rose is Britain's senior psephologist and an expert on party government. His new book 'How Sick is British Democracy?: a Clinical Analysis' is published by Palgrave.