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Reform UK Steals Voters From Sunak and Starmer

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A storm is brewing on the right flank of British politics, threatening to rip open divisions within the Conservative and Labour parties. Under the Rishi Sunak leadership, new polls point to a hemorrhaging of Tory voters towards Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party. 

But Labour is not immune – Reform UK also risks poaching traditional Labour voters. 

The hardline Eurosceptics are siphoning support by campaigning on an uncompromising anti-immigration platform as public frustration boils over. With Farage and Tice waiting in the wings to unleash their agenda, Sunak faces a two-front crisis. 

The Conservatives appear increasingly divided on issues from illegal Channel crossings to record high legal migration. Reform UK smells blood, ramping up pressure on the Tories’ exposed right flank. 

But Labour cannot ignore the threat either, if Reform UK resonates in working-class former heartlands. Unless both major parties can wrest back control of the immigration debate, they may face an existential threat from Farage’s forces. 

The battle for the soul of the right wing is underway, and Reform UK is racing to fill the vacuum left by the Conservatives’ and Labour’s leadership.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing a reckoning from voters over its failure to get a handle on immigration, with new polls showing the insurgent right-wing Reform UK party rapidly gaining support at the Tories’ expense.

The latest polling underscores the scale of disaffection among the Conservative base under Rishi Sunak’s leadership. A survey by Redfield & Wilton points to only tepid loyalty among those who backed the Tories under Boris Johnson in 2019. Just over half of these voters plan to stick with the Conservatives at the next election. While hardly a ringing endorsement for Sunak, this pales compared to the 15% who state they will abandon the Tories for Reform UK – a dramatic swing to the populist right. 

What will perhaps concern Conservative strategists most is that Reform UK poses a greater threat than the main opposition party in luring away disaffected Tory voters. While only 13% of those who backed the Conservatives in 2019 now plan to switch allegiance to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, a larger share of 15% intend to defect to Reform UK. 

That Reform UK is pulling more of the Conservative base than the main opposition party suggests significant chunks of the “Red Wall” may gravitate to right-wing populism rather than back towards Labour. 

Reform UK, led by veteran Eurosceptics Nigel Farage and Richard Tice, has positioned itself to the right of the Conservatives on hot-button issues like immigration and climate change. 

The party is calling for “net zero” immigration, meaning arrivals could not exceed departures. This hardline stance appears to be appealing to the many Conservative voters disgruntled over the government’s failure to curb immigration.

Sensing blood in the water, Reform UK chief Richard Tice has audaciously vowed a full-blooded challenge to the Conservatives at the next election. Tice is mobilizing Reform to stand candidates across all constituencies, intent on capitalizing on the Tories’ vulnerability by inflicting maximum damage. Tice did not mince words as he promised that “The Conservatives must be punished at the ballot box.”

While Labour currently enjoys a formidable lead in national polls, the Redfield & Wilton survey suggests Sunak cannot count on swathes of former Labour voters in the “Red Wall” seats switching to the Tories as they did in 2019. These predominantly working-class constituencies appear more inclined to flirt with Reform UK’s populism than return to the fold under Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Nationally, Reform UK is now polling at around 10%, placing them in third position ahead of the centrist Lib Dems. Buoyed by these figures, Tice has boldly pledged Reform will stand candidates in every constituency at the next general election.

With the Tories’ right flank exposed, the polling amounts to a stark warning for Sunak. His government is scrambling to finalize plans for reducing immigration, both illegal and legal. But critics say the efforts look half-hearted and are too little, too late to restore voter trust.

The biggest policy challenge remains illegal immigration across the English Channel. More than 28,500 migrants made the dangerous crossing in small boats last year, and 2022 is on track for another record high. At the current pace, the annual total could reach 50,000.

Sunak has vowed to revive a stalled plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing and resettlement. However, a binding ruling by the Supreme Court found the scheme unlawful on human rights grounds. Home Secretary James Cleverly will now travel to Rwanda to negotiate a new treaty that can overcome the court’s objections.

The key stumbling block remains the European Convention on Human Rights or the ECHR, which the Supreme Court said precluded removing asylum seekers without assessing their circumstances in the UK. 

For now, the Rwanda policy remains stuck in legislative limbo. With boats arriving daily and facilities overwhelmed, immigration control appears in disarray. 

Tice told the BBC he is in regular contact with Tory MPs furious over the Channel crossings: “I’m very happy to confirm that I’ve had numerous discussions with a number of Tory MPs, ministers, former ministers, who are absolutely furious with the complete betrayal of the Government’s promises, furious with the failure to stop the boats, furious with opening the borders to mass immigration.”

While Rwanda dominates headlines, reducing legal migration could prove Sunak’s thorniest challenge. Net migration recently hit an all-time high of 745,000. The government is reportedly debating measures like minimum salary rules for work visas. But this risks damaging fields like the NHS that rely on foreign labor.

While some Conservative hardliners like Suella Braverman favor drastic cuts to legal migration, Sunak has struck a more moderate, liberal tone so far. He seems unwilling to make major reductions in work visas or clamp down heavily on foreign workers.

Sunak, therefore, faces deepening divisions within the Conservatives over immigration policy. If he adheres to a more liberal approach, he could face blowback from the party’s anti-immigration faction. But swinging too far to the hardline stance risks economic damage and an authoritarian image.

The PM is stuck trying to placate both the moderate and absolutist wings of his party on immigration. His balancing act is precarious, as each side pressures him to adopt its preferred policies. Choosing one risks internal dissent from the other. Sunak has yet to find a solution that bridges these divisive Conservative factions on the contentious issue of immigration.

Behind this resurgence of the immigration issue lurks the imposing figure of Nigel Farage. The veteran Eurosceptic led UKIP to become a major force in British politics by weaponizing concerns over uncontrolled migration. Now at the helm of Reform UK, he could yet prove highly dangerous to the Conservatives.

The Isle of Thanet, which came close to electing Farage as an MP in 2015, serves as an illustrative example. Reform UK already controls Thanet District Council, which UKIP seized at the height of anti-immigration sentiment during the Syrian refugee crisis.

Farage has an uncanny ability to tap into grievances over immigration and mobilize disaffected voters left behind by globalization. His man-of-the-people appeal resonates in working-class communities bearing the brunt of rapid cultural change.

While Farage himself has withdrawn from frontline politics, for now, he casts a long shadow. If he returns to lead Reform UK into the next election directly, his policies could siphon crucial votes away from the Tories.

Conservative strategists cannot afford to dismiss this prospect. Lord Cameron’s infamous dismissal of UKIP as “fruitcakes and loonies” only strengthened Farage’s anti-establishment credentials. The Conservatives must take Reform UK seriously, even as Farage flirts with political retirement.

The antidote is for Sunak to finally get a grip on immigration themselves, restoring public faith that they will deliver on promises to reduce numbers. With migration recently exceeding 750,000, Reform UK’s hardline stance resonates.

Conservative minister Neil O’Brien argued that the UK needs to become “the grammar school of the Western world” – selective but not averse to immigration in principle. What matters is regaining control over volumes after years of runaway growth.

Proposals like an “Office for Budget Responsibility for Migration” would force accountability. An annual “Sustainable Migration Plan” should commit to reducing low and medium-skilled immigration over time.

The clock is ticking for Rishi Sunak to demonstrate that the Conservatives are taking voters’ concerns seriously by implementing effective policies to control immigration. 

If Sunak fails to deliver tangible results soon, Reform UK stands ready to channel this disappointment into votes for his resurgent Reform UK. The Conservative’s hold on right-wing voters is tenuous. 

Without swift action to restore confidence in the government’s immigration policies, Sunak risks a damaging split in the traditional Tory base. The insurgent threat is already mobilizing on the right flank. 

Conservatives must act fast to keep Farage at bay or face a possible drubbing at the polls as disillusioned supporters flock to Reform UK. The time for Sunak to contain this rising threat is now before it becomes an unstoppable force that engulfs his party from the outside.

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