Boris Johnson might be in a whole heap of trouble right now but two years ago almost to the day he was master of all he surveyed. That December, he achieved an overall majority of 80 seats on a vote share of 43.6 per cent — barely six months after the Conservatives had crashed to an all-time low of 8.8 per cent in elections to the European Parliament, forced on Theresa May by her failure to leave the EU.
Few realised at the time — and maybe don’t even now — that the Tory majority could have been even bigger. Our research for the latest in the long-running Nuffield studies of British general elections suggests that, by attracting the support of former Labour and Ukip voters who might otherwise have backed him, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party may have saved up to 25 Labour MPs, denying Johnson a landslide majority of about 130 seats.
Intriguingly, the same research suggests that, owing to the overall swing to the Conservatives in most seats, Farage’s decision in 2019 not to stand candidates in Tory-held constituencies had far less impact.
All this points to an unnerving truth for the Conservative party — namely that, although one of the keys to its victory was the ability to “unite the right” with a promise to “Get Brexit Done”, it nevertheless remains vulnerable to a populist radical right insurgency.
These days, that insurgency comes in the guise of Reform UK — the successor to the Brexit party led by Farage’s former right-hand man, Richard Tice. As with the Brexit party (and Ukip before it) the Tories’ fear is not that their latest rightwing rival will take seats off them. But by attracting support both from those who would normally vote Tory and those who might do so for other reasons, it might help Labour and the Liberal Democrats win them instead.
That is a distinct possibility in the upcoming by-election in North Shropshire occasioned by the resignation of Owen Paterson — now just one episode in a spate of scandals that, along with rising concern about immigration in the Channel and antipathy towards anti-Covid measures, may trigger a significant anti-Tory protest vote.
Paterson didn’t have to worry in 2019 about the Brexit party denting what was, in any case, a massive Conservative majority. But rewind to the 2015 election and you find Ukip coming from practically nowhere to take nearly 18 per cent of the vote.
In some ways, that should come as no surprise. After all, North Shropshire is a solidly pro-Brexit seat, with 60 per cent of its voters estimated to have voted Leave in 2016.
True, it makes it into the 200 most affluent parliamentary constituencies in the UK and boasts relatively few of the “left behind” supporters of the radical right. But Remain’s defeat in the EU referendum owed every bit as much to the comfortable Leavers of middle England as to their less well-heeled counterparts in more deprived areas. And in contrast with some European countries, voting for radical rightwing populists in the UK is a pastime mainly for the elderly or middle aged, of which North Shropshire has more than its fair share.
All this makes the seat a test bed of sorts for the radical right. But in the end, Reform UK can only help cost the Conservatives the seat in the event of a huge swing to either the Lib Dems or Labour. That’s not, of course, unprecedented and, after June’s shock result in Chesham and Amersham, anything is possible. But it does rely on tactically-inclined voters in North Shropshire knowing which of the two is really best placed to give Johnson a bloody nose — something that, thanks to the apparent reluctance of either party to give the other a clear run, doesn’t seem, so far anyway, to be as obvious as many advocates of a tacit “progressive alliance” hoped it might be.
Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/bf2a9b96-e138-4953-89ef-30feae57297e