The Irish Times view on the plight of the UK Conservative Party: trouble is brewing

The impressive vote for the right-wing former Brexit Party, now Reform UK, was significant and could damage the Tories in the next British general election

As two new Labour MPs take their seats in the House of Commons in London, the Conservatives are left looking back at two heavy by-election defeats at the hands of Keir Starmer’s Labour. Downing Street beckons for Labour, as long as the party does not become blasé. Last Thursday’s 28.6 per cent swing in Wellingborough, the second biggest shift of support to Labour in recent years, and the 16 per cent swing in Kingswood, mark the sixth consecutive by-election defeats of the Tories since July and the tenth in this parliament.

Yet the sideshow in these elections, the impressive vote for the right-wing former Brexit Party, now Reform UK, was perhaps just as significant. It marks for the battered Conservative Party, as poll expert John Curtice put it, “a new aspect to that trouble,” an internal challenge as much as an electoral one from outside.

Polling above its national average 10 per cent in both seats, Reform put down a marker that it is more than able to deprive the Tories of many marginal seats, thus handing the general election to Labour. Boris Johnson’s 2019 landslide victory was substantially boosted by Nigel Farage’s willingness to withdraw Brexit party candidates from seats with incumbent Tory MPs. But Reform leader Richard Tice – with a returned Farage at his side – has ruled out such a pact again.

To forestall an electoral battle it cannot win, the Conservative Party appears likely to throw more policy red meat to Reform supporters or potential defectors in its own ranks. That is likely to mean a more toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric to woo what Tice has called their “one in, one out” adherents.

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That may not suffice, however, to win Reform over to a voting alliance for the next UK general election. And Farage has been hinting – or letting it be said – that many MPs on the right of the Tories would like him to join the party – and even to lead it out of the doldrums by pulling it in a dramatically rightward, populist direction. It is possible that we are about to witness, as one political commentator put it, “the reconstituting of the Conservative Party”.