How much can Tories gain by Reforming their Appeal?

by Prof Richard Rose, 1 December 2023

The Conservative Party has spent almost four years reforming its appeal since it won a big victory at the 2019 general election. The net effect is that it has lost the support of more than half the people who voted for it at the last election. If it doesn't make any more changes, then it is likely to win only 121 MPs at the next general election. This would be the party's worst showing in modern electoral history.

Ex-Conservatives have gone three different ways. The largest bloc are a fifth of its former voters who are disoriented and tell YouGov that they don't know how they will vote now. This implies that if Rishi Sunak revived the appeal that won the Tories a big majority then, the Tory vote would increase by three-quarters. However, this is impossible for the electoral appeal then was to get Brexit done. Other issues, such as the cost of living, are now of greatest concern.

Probability of Parliamentary outcomes December 2023

A second strategy would be to move to the centre to win back the support of ex-Tories who now support the Liberal Democrats or Labour. One problem is that the Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer has already moved toward the centre. A second problem is that a move to the centre would lose support from Tories who would prefer a move to the right.

The third strategy is hidden in plain sight: regain the support of ex-Tories who say they would now vote for the Reform Party. The Reform Party has put Brexit behind it: its slogan – Make Britain Great – is a traditional Tory slogan. Two of its major policies – zero net immigration and lower taxes – are favoured by the Tory right. Two more policies – cheaper energy and reducing NHS waiting lists – appeal to all parties but embarrass the government of the day as they are easier to promise than to deliver.

At most a shift to the right would add the 8 percent of Reform supporters to the current Tory support. If this were to happen, Electoral Calculus reckons it would save 89 seats that the Tories are likely to lose in present circumstances. A more realistic assumption is that the Conservatives would do well to gain as much as two-thirds of current Reform support by a shift to the right. That would still save the party 72 seats – all other conditions remaining equal.

At best, a shift to the right would reduce an electoral bloodbath to a major haemorrhage, since it would not stop Labour from winning control of government. Seats gained with Reform supporters in the Tory fold would give it only 210 MPs, and leave Sir Keir Starmer occupying Downing Street with a comfortable majority and 381 Labour MPs. If the Conservative gain dropped to two-thirds of Reform voters, the Tories would have 193 MPs on opposition benches facing a horde of Labour MPs more than double their size.

The stronger the shift to the right, the more the Conservatives risk the defection of some current supporters who favour centrist policies. This number of centrists has been radically reduced by losses of the past four years. The main likely beneficiary would be the Liberal Democrats. Without such defections, a rightward shift could cost the party up to one-third of the 31 seats the Liberal Democrats are reckoned to gain from a Tory bloodbath.

Under any set of assumptions, the first-past-the-post electoral system appears likely to keep the Reform Party from winning seats at the next general election. But it doesn't need to win seats in order to exercise political influence. Fielding candidates that cost the Tories upwards of one hundred MPs would give those who survived a case for making a turn to the right. Moreover, if Nigel Farage returned from the Australian jungle with a taste for English red meat he could give the Reform Party a single MP who offered the Tories a proven right-wing leader.

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.