Iain Dale analysis: Was Nigel Farage's Reform UK U-turn key to Labour's General Election victory?

5 July 2024, 12:35

The election was eighth time lucky for Nigel Farage
The election was eighth time lucky for Nigel Farage. Picture: Alamy
Iain Dale

By Iain Dale

The best way to get the same outcome is to repeat the mistakes you’ve made in the past.

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And that’s what is about to happen to the Conservative Party. The last thing it needs after suffering such a crushing defeat is an immediate leadership election.

Peter Lilley said shortly after the devastating defeat in 1997 that the party needed to realise that “no one is remotely interested in listening to anything we have to say.” And they weren’t. For years.

It doesn’t need to take years for the public to want to hear from the Conservatives again. A lot will depend on how long Labour’s honeymoon lasts.

Yes, Labour won a huge majority, but their percentage vote share, at just over 33 per cent, was only 1.2 per cent greater than in the disaster of 2019.

It was several percentage points fewer than Jeremy Corbyn achieved in 2019.

Labour have not been swept to power by a wave of public enthusiasm as it was in 1997. That’s not to underplay the size of their majority. But much of that majority has been achieved thanks to Piers Morgan.

What? I hear you shriek! Has Dale finally lost his marbles? Let me explain, dear reader.

Back at the beginning of the campaign Nigel Farage appeared on the BBC’s Question Time with Piers Morgan.

Morgan relentlessly goaded him about his decision not to stand for a parliamentary seat in the election. I’ve never seen Farage look so pained and uncomfortable. Sure enough, a few days later Farage exited an abrupt U-Turn and announced he was taking over the leadership of Reform UK and stand in Clacton.

That was the moment Keir Starmer’s majority was sealed.

I predicted on that day that Reform would take thousands of votes in constituencies up and down the country, even though I fully realise Reform has support from ex Labour voters too.

I haven’t been able to do a full analysis yet, and worked out exactly how many Tories were ousted due to the size of the Reform vote, but I reckon it counts for more than half of their losses.

Well done Piers. You played a blinder for Labour. A peerage is surely in the offing. I mean, if Rishi Sunak’s chief of staff, Liam Booth-Smith can get one, anyone can.

Rishi Sunak has rightly resigned. He didn’t have any other option. But he rather cryptically said that he would leave when the party had put into place arrangements for the section of a new leader. In theory that could be next week. So if he goes next week, who does PMQs for the opposition between now and the end of September? Who appoints a shadow team?

This won’t happen, largely because there is no mechanism for it to happen in the Tory Party rules, but there is surely an argument for an interim leader to take over until a proper leadership election can be arranged later in the year, or even in early 2025. It could be kicked off at the party conference.

All successful political parties are coalitions. All unsuccessful parties are more like sects. They become ideological and cannot accept that their party should be a broad church.

That’s the way the Conservative Party is heading, but that way lies madness, as the Republicans in America have found. So when Suella Braverman says the Conservative Party hasn’t been conservative enough, you know what direction she would lead the party in.

What she should do is heed the wise words of Sir Robert Buckland in his concession speech, when he lost to Heidi Alexander in Swindon. He warned of the dangers of trying to cosy up to Reform. While Nigel Farage may have been a Conservative in the past, he’s devoted the last 30 years to trying to destroy it.

You can’t appease Reform. You can’t out-Farage Nigel Farage.

Braverman, and possibly one or two other potential leadership candidates, may well think it would be wise to contemplate a merger with Reform and unite the Right.

Whatever superficial attractions that may offer, it would effectively be a reverse takeover of the Conservative Party by Reform UK. And it would result in many centrist and One Nation Conservatives jumping off the other end.

Potential leadership candidates like Tom Tugendhat, Victoria Atkins or Jeremy Hunt would have no truck with this approach, but others probably would.

With Penny Mordaunt out of the picture, having lost her seat, James Cleverly is the only big beast who could be described as ‘centrist’ but he has so far indicated he wouldn’t stand. I suspect, however, he would be persuadable.

On the right of the party, there will be a bunfight, and the various contenders would be well advised to unite behind one candidate. Suella Braverman, Esther McVey, Priti Patel and Robert Jenrick need to acquire the ability of self-knowledge. None of them has what it takes to unite the party or to be a good leader of the opposition.

Kemi Badenoch is the most likely candidate of the Right, but there are too many of her colleagues who doubt some of her abilities, while recognising that she would certainly take the fight to Keir Starmer.

But they ask if she understands the 24/7 nature of the job and would apply herself in the way you need to in that role. The immediate requirement is to calm down the party, start the painful process of a complete policy overhaul and work out how the party structures can be revived in a period where donations are unlikely to be plentiful.

Over the weekend, things will become clearer about the 121 MPs who make up the new Conservative parliamentary party. Are they ERG types or more of a One Nation disposition.

On that, a lot will depend.

But let us not forget. It was Piers Morgan wot won it.

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