How Reform fares on Thursday will also determine the Conservatives fate (2024)

They came in their droves: thousands of Reform supporters poured into a vast hall in a Birmingham conference centre on Sunday to hear Nigel Farage.

His backers brought with them Union Jacks, and brandished Reform placards. There were even one or two red baseball caps emblazoned with the slogan "Make Britain Great Again", which seemed fitting for an event that felt quite Trumpian in style and tone.

Mr Farage came onto the stage to pounding music, smoke machines, fireworks, and a sea of "it's time for Reform" placards to a 5,000-strong crowd with a speech that spoke about how Britain was broken and it was time for Reform.

He said his party would be the "leading voice of opposition" as he attacked 'the establishment' in all its guises, from the Conservative Party to Labour, the BBC, and Channel 4 to the Governor of the Bank of England.

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While detractors describe Mr Farage's platform as a type of dog-whistle politics that does little but to stoke grievances and division, there is an audience for him and his policies that politicians in larger parties should ignore at their peril.

When I spoke to many people in the hall afterwards, they were overwhelmingly former Conservative voters disillusioned with their old party.

One woman, who had travelled over from Hull for the rally told me she thought there were a lot of "silent people who may be frightened to say they are voting Reform".

"I think it's going to be shock," she said.

How Reform fares on Thursday will also determine the Conservatives fate (1)

2024 is the election for 'the other parties'

The rise of the 'other' parties is a clear theme of this election campaign as the Liberal Democrats, who won just 11 seats back in 2019, now eye getting back to the levels of seats they enjoyed - in the 1940s or 1950s - before it was wiped out in 2015 on the back of the coalition years.

Nigel Farage's Reform, meanwhile, is on 16.2% in our Sky News poll tracker, just behind the Tories on 20%.

Earlier this month, the Conservatives fell behind Reform UK for the first time in a national poll, leaving the Tories gripped by panic and in despair.

Mr Farage likes to make the argument that Labour could be heading to a landslide on a lower voter share.

Recent analysis in the Financial Times suggested Labour could win a record 450 seats - about 70% - on just 41% of the votes, lower than the figure Jeremy Corbyn's Labour achieved in 2017, while the Lib Dems could pick up 50 seats with a lower share of the vote than Reform with just a few seats at best. If it turns out anything like this, prepare for plenty of noise from Mr Farage.

Whether undecided voters or those leaning to Reform stick with them on Thursday is a big unknown of this election. Tories are nervous, knowing that big Reform votes piling up in their constituencies could cost them their seat.

In 2019, the majority of Conservatives did not have a threat from the right, as the Brexit Party stood down candidates with a Brexit-backing Conservative candidate. They stood but 275 or 632 seats.

This time around, Reform is everywhere and no one feels safe: one poll put James Cleverly's Braintree constituency, supposedly the 19th safest Conservative seat, on a knife edge as Reform clocks up an estimated 22% vote share in his Essex constituency.

How Reform fares on Thursday will also determine the Conservatives fate (2)

Tories in all-out war

The Conservatives, who began this campaign trying not to get into a fight with Mr Farage (perhaps for fear of further alienating their traditional voters) are now at all-out war as they try to salvage as many seats as they can.

On Sunday the party said if "just 130,000 voters currently considering a vote for Reform or the Lib Dems voted Conservative, it would be enough to stop Labour's supermajority".

The prime minister, meanwhile, has become increasingly vocal in his criticisms of Reform and Mr Farage as the party looks for a way to pull voters back.

Mr Sunak has been vocal in his criticism of Mr Farage as a "Putin appeaser" after the Reform leader suggested Ukraine enter peace talks - something which Ukraine has emphatically ruled out unless Russia retreats from its territory.

The prime minister also spoke of his "anger and hurt" over revelations - contested by Reform - in a Channel 4 undercover report of a Reform canvasser calling Mr Sunak a "f****** P***".

This, combined with a Reform organiser making hom*ophobic remarks and candidates being suspended for racist, antisemitic and sexist views has caused difficulties for Mr Farage in recent days.

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How Reform fares on Thursday will also determine the Conservatives fate (3) 1:29

Tensions around Farage starting to show

In our interview in Birmingham on Sunday, some of those tensions were beginning to show.

For a start, the politician who had appeared with right-wing Tories such as potential future leader Dame Priti Patel at the Conservative Party conference last October, and openly toyed about returning to the fold, now ruled out any sort of tie-up.

Having spoken but a month ago about a reverse takeover of the Tories and refusing to rule out one day rejoining the party, on Sunday he was clear he would not rejoin, and wanted nothing to do with the Conservatives.

How Reform fares on Thursday will also determine the Conservatives fate (4)

It comes after a clutch of senior figures, including Dame Priti, indicated that Mr Farage would now not be welcomed back into the party in the wake of the backlash over his claim the West provoked Russia to invade Ukraine and the racism row engulfing Reform.

He equally was more equivocal than he had been about Andrew Tate in the past, making it clear to me that he "disavowed' him, and was also highly critical of Reform events organiser George James who made hom*ophobic remarks, saying he was "furious" when he saw the footage (also in the Channel 4 report) of Mr James describing the Pride flag as "degenerate" and criticising the police for displaying the flag.

"They should be out catching the n***** not promoting the f******"," he said in the report.

Mr Farage said Mr James was "crass, drunken, rude and wrong" and told me he had been asked to remove his membership. But he also said he was "down a few drinks" explaining: "We could all say silly things when we're a bit drunk."

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When I asked him if people really say things like this when they are drunk, Mr Farage said: "People say all sorts of things when they're drunk and often don't remember. But it was awful."

So awful that one Reform candidate announced on Sunday evening they were standing down and would instead back their local Conservative in the constituency of Erewash.

The question for Reform is whether their potential voters, looking at some of the controversy surrounding the party, decide it's not for them after all.

What is absolutely clear is Reform's performance will help determine that of the Conservatives on Thursday night as the election results come in.

If he's successful, Mr Farage will be heading for parliament, not only giving him a bigger national platform but a democratic mandate. That spells trouble for a Conservative party already in turmoil.

How Reform fares on Thursday will also determine the Conservatives fate (2024)
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