April 23, 2024 - 7:00am

As the Tory Party has started to slide even further downwards, some are talking with bated breath about the prospect of a crossover – hitting parity with, or even falling below, Reform UK. Taking the former at its lowest vote share and the latter at its highest, the gap is now perhaps just four or five points. Should that happen, it could point to one of the biggest ever shifts in British political history, and an existential crisis for the Conservatives. Yet there are grounds to be sceptical.

On the face of it, Reform is on an impressive trajectory. Current polls have the party sitting at around 14%. This would be higher than Ukip polled at its 2015 peak. Outside of the polls, however, there is much to suggest these numbers are flimsy. For one, the Reform vote has failed to materialise in by-elections. Even as the Tories have sunk, Reform candidates have been also-rans, not picking up disaffected Conservatives in the way they’d hope.

Wellingborough is the only seat in which Reform has come close, scoring 13%, but most expected the party to do much better there than its national average. In Mid Bedfordshire, Reform didn’t even beat the local independent candidate. It seems there is a real schism between what people are telling pollsters and what’s happening at the ballot box.

The local elections give us an indication of why. While Ukip built its way from the ground up, grinding away at council elections, Reform has pretty much ignored this aspect of politics. In 2015, Ukip won over 200 council seats and even took control of the Thanet local authority. The year before, when turnout wasn’t muddied by the general election on the same day, the party claimed 17% of the vote. Reform is nowhere near this — in next month’s local elections, it is standing just 300 candidates and so far has picked up just 10 defecting councillors.

While Reform has been adept at garnering headlines, it has failed to build out a party infrastructure. For all its pretensions to speak for “the real world”, it mostly exists as a creature of the Westminster bubble. The leadership makes announcements and talks to journalists, as well as trying to pull Tory MPs into defecting, but little happens out in the country. There’s no formal membership structures and few places have a local association.

This reduces its potential strength when the general election comes. On everything from getting nomination papers in to persuading voters to turn out, Reform is pretty untested, meaning there’s a good chance it will underperform at the next election.

As the big contest grows near, Reform could find its numbers squeezed. In the absence of a good ground campaign, it faces multiple risks. Worried Tory MPs could peel off waverers by love-bombing, campaigning hard and visibly on local issues. Ambitious Labour candidates might try the same approach. In addition, Reform relies on a core of dissatisfied, anti-politics voters, who just might not bother unless canvassers reach them.

Reform will probably falter in the general election. The party will cost the Tories seats, for sure, but will be a long way off winning any of its own. A poorer showing might help the Conservatives but would leave Reform in an awkward position — too unpopular to ever really challenge the existing parties, and scrabbling around for direction, and attention, in a Labour-dominated era. The Conservatives might be bruised by this, but not broken, and would be more in need of winning voters back from Labour than from the Right.

For all the excitement about potential crossover points, there’s still little evidence Reform votes really stack up. For all its media ubiquity, the party shows no aptitude for the real business of detailed manifestos or ground campaigns. Looking beyond the polls, its position looks weak and liable for squeezing. Coming towards the general election, the Reform threat could well prove to be a phantom.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.