How UK politics could spiral towards extremism if Reform destroys the Conservatives

An election that pits two mainstream parties against each other necessarily forces them to fight for the centre. Two competing right-wing parties could create a ‘centrifugal’ political force that pushes them away from it

Reform’s meteoric rise through the polls somehow feels less surprising than it really is. It almost seems like the new order of things: Nigel Farage shows up whenever the Tories shun the right of the party.

But this is not like other Farage start-up parties. This is not a European Parliament election, like the one that led to Theresa May’s dethronement. This is not a local election, either. Reform is also unlike the Brexit party of the 2019 general election, which predominantly stood in Labour red wall seats and targeted Labour votes as a single-issue party.

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Even in 2015, when UKIP stood in 625 seats on the back of their 2014 EU election victory, and attracted 13 per cent of the vote, they did so with a view to holding the Conservatives to their promise of an EU referendum. Their manifesto was written to show up Labour as unserious on immigration, and in an age when all parties were committing to cut the budget deficit, their message on foreign benefits claimants and high EU membership fees landed with otherwise left-wing voters.

Reform leader Nigel Farage poses with a pint of beer in a Wetherspoons pub in Clacton-on-Sea (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)Reform leader Nigel Farage poses with a pint of beer in a Wetherspoons pub in Clacton-on-Sea (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)
Reform leader Nigel Farage poses with a pint of beer in a Wetherspoons pub in Clacton-on-Sea (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Friends’ of a fascist

Reform, again, is a new phenomenon altogether. Its manifesto (or ‘contract’, as Farage prefers) is this time written to hurt the Tories. It is a line-by-line response of one-upmanship. The goal of this Reform party is to destroy the Conservative party. They’re also immune to scandal that would bury a serious party of government, with 41 candidates found to be social media friends of the British fascist leader not being deselected.

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The excuse was that they had hired a private company to do the vetting of candidates – but surely a serious party would remove candidates when presented with the evidence? They’re being treated like a protest-vote party, while pitching themselves as a party of government come 2029.

The Conservatives, for their sins, have been a remarkably stable party and one that has been successful in many governments. This sounds trivial, but it took the Labour party the entire interwar period to become a party that could credibly govern on its own. From a democratic point of view, it will be Keir Starmer’s way or the highway for at least a decade. Policy will be determined by Labour’s internal factions.

Centripetal or centrifugal politics

In terms of electoral politics, the Conservatives are the only party that can hold together a coalition of right-wing voters – libertarians, soft nationalists, the Workington man and One Nation Tories. Reform could never hope to keep future Ken Clarkes or David Gaukes inside any tent with Farage. Obviously, this is bad news for the right but it’s also bad news for politics more broadly.

Majoritarian parliamentary systems are pretty good at creating broad-church parties and fostering what scholars call centripetal politics. It’s less centrism than the idea that parties are kept from political extremes by the system itself because expediency means competing for centrist voters.

Break one of the big parties and, of course, they will not be in government. The remnants will compete for each other’s votes rather than for the centre – it’s centrifugal politics. Starmer has his own issues with the Greens’ metamorphosis into a socialist party with environmental branding. But electoral rules will see this divergence in British politics hidden underneath a largely unearned Starmer majority.

Given how little attention the electorate is paying to policy this election, and how broadly unserious attempts have been to square with the electorate about the calamitous decisions any government will have to take in the next decade, Starmer will enter government fairly much unexamined, propelled there by Reform, Conservative fatigue, and an unwillingness to defend their record in government. At any rate, Starmer may govern a country which, electorally, has never been more divided with a large majority.

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Conservatives not natural ideologues

The real casualty of this election will be small-c conservative values. The party that emerges following a possible leadership election will necessarily have to compromise on principles: caution, natural social change, limited government, aspirational politics and the preference for the tried and tested over the utopian ideal. The measured but quietly patriotic politics of Roger Scruton and Michael Oakeshott. They found expression within the wider electoral coalition of the Tory party, but would be sidelined in a world where Reform cleaves the Tory party in half.

Conservative people are not by nature ideological, and their critics have longed called their tradition “reactionary”, or trying in vain to bring back the past, with no central unchanging principles. This is a misunderstanding of conservatism, which is an attitude much more than it is a set of beliefs. It’s an attitude characterised by an aversion to manufactured social change, preferring gradual social evolution under conditions of continuity and stability.

Edmund Burke saw society as a partnership between the dead, the living, and the unborn future. To throw away institutions, traditions, practices and customs that have stood the test of time is hubris and forgets the role of practical rather than theoretical learning. This is why people ask about the world wars and the sacrifices made by those men, because we are not a random collection of individuals but an intergenerational polity which owes a debt and humility to its past and its future. Scruton called it a “love of home”, and I think that is apt.

It's not a philosophy that puts the ends above the means. It’s not a reactionary movement. Real conservatives know that it’s much easier to tear something down than to build something better. Should the Tories cease to operate as a meaningful party of government following an election wipeout, this small-c conservatism will be forced into expressing itself through the filter of the rationalist movements to the left and right. Looking at the state of politics in Europe and the US, that is not a future anyone should want for us.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim OBE is the Scotland Institute’s executive chair and director of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy



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