Will Nigel Farage's Reform UK 'beat' the Tories in the election?

With some polling figures putting the Tories and Reform UK nearly neck and neck, could Farage's party really end up with nearly as many MPs as Sunak's?

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage speaks to the media at Boneham and Turner Ltd, in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, whilst on the General Election campaign trail. Picture date: Tuesday June 11, 2024.
Nigel Farage's Reform UK has been steadily closing the gap on the Conservatives in the polls. (Alamy)

Leading pollster John Curtice has poured cold water on suggestions that Reform UK is now beating the Conservative Party in the general election polls.

As representatives from seven parties took prepared to take part in a TV debate on Thursday, a YouGov survey for The Times newspaper said Reform’s support had increased by two points to 19%, putting them ahead of the Tories for the first time.

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage took the the opportunity to hail the poll results in the debate, declaring: “We are now the opposition to Labour.”

But Curtice urged caution, insisting that single polls should not be relied on. He told Radio 4's Today programme: "This is one poll - we’ve actually, I think, had four other polls published in the last 24 hours - none of which have had Reform ahead, not even all of which have had Reform gaining ground, but quite a couple of them certainly suggesting it’s also got very close."

He said it may not be the case that Reform are ahead - and could be on average four or five points behind. But he said: "This is still bad news for the Conservatives. The only way Rishi Sunak can hope to get even to base camp in narrowing the lead that Labour have started off with this campaign was to squeeze the Reform vote."

He added: "Rather than making progress, things are actually going backwards, not least of course because of Nigel Farage’s decision to fight this campaign."

With many speculating that Reform UK with Farage at the helm could "beat" the Tories, Yahoo News UK takes a look.

YouGov’s voting intention tracker, updated on Tuesday, suggests the Tories and Reform UK are neck and neck.

With Labour well ahead on 38%, the Tories are trailing on 18% – compared to a high of 53% under Boris Johnson in 2020 – with Reform UK just behind on 17% and the Liberal Democrats on 15%.

However, there are multiple polls taking place at any one time by a number of different companies.

According to the PA news agency, an average of all polls that were carried out wholly or partly during the seven days to June 13 puts Labour on 43%, 21 points ahead of the Conservatives on 22%, followed by Reform on 14%, the Lib Dems on 10% and the Greens on 6%.

And while Reform’s average is up one percentage point on the figure for the previous week and the Tories are down one point, there is still an eight-point gap, on average, between the two.

Unless something remarkable happens, in short: 'No' - and that's because of the first past the post (FPTP) voting system in which the candidate with the largest number of votes in their constituency is elected.

According to the Electoral Reform Society, which is against FPTP, this system leads to a situation where “even if millions of voters support the same party, if they are thinly spread out across the UK they may only get the largest number of votes in a couple of these contests – so only win a few MPs".

“Tens of thousands of voters supporting a different party, but who live near each other, could end up with more MPs. This means the number of MPs a party has in parliament rarely matches their popularity with the public.”

TOPSHOT - Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader, Rishi Sunak (L) speaks with journalists aboard of the party campaign bus on its way to Grimsby after leaving Doncaster Station, on the M180, on June 12, 2024, in the build-up to the UK general election on July 4. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / POOL / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak on the campaign trail on Wednesday. (AFP via Getty Images)

Farage knows this well. As the leader of UKIP in the 2015 election, he saw his party win 12.6% of the nationwide vote and one seat. The Liberal Democrats won 7.9% of the vote... and eight seats.

Indeed, YouGov last week released a poll – put together using the multi-level regression and post-stratification (MRP) surveying technique, from a sample size of nearly 60,000 respondents – which suggested the Tories would win just 140 seats, having won 365 in 2019. But this is still 140 more than the zero it projected Reform UK to win, in spite of its strong polling figures.

The model had Reform UK "performing strongly in a number of seats but still a long way off winning in any", with projected second-placed finishes in 27 constituencies.

YouGov's MRP projection. (YouGov)
YouGov's MRP projection. (YouGov)

Granted, this model was formed between 24 May and 1 June, before Farage's headline-grabbing intervention on Monday last week in which he announced he would be standing as an MP.

But, even as Reform UK polls closer than ever to the Tories, it's difficult to imagine the party winning more than a handful of seats.

Chris Hopkins, director at polling firm Savanta, told Yahoo News UK that in one respect, Reform UK is at an advantage compared to Ukip in 2015 because "Ukip took votes from both Labour and the Conservatives, and we are not seeing that with Reform UK – they are all coming from the Conservatives.

"That is the consequence of Rishi Sunak making immigration a centrepiece of the campaign and failing to deliver on it. Even if you have voters that are neutral on immigration, they would say the small boats policy has been a disaster."

But even so, Hopkins said, Reform UK is still "at a huge electoral disadvantage" in that its votes are not very concentrated, they are very evenly spread.

"There are going to be some races where Reform UK is strong - the Nigel Farage factor in Clacton is really interesting - but realistically its ceiling is five seats: and that’s a high ceiling."

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey on a campaign visit in Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire, on Wednesday. (PA)
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey on a campaign visit in Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire, on Wednesday. (PA)

Like Reform UK, Sir Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats are performing well in the polls.

In a sign of how defensive the Tory campaign is becoming, one online party advert claims voting for Reform UK or the Lib Dems could give Labour 100 extra seats, resulting in the biggest majority in its history.

It depicts a scenario where the Conservatives are beaten into third place behind the Lib Dems, with just 57 seats, despite getting 19% of the vote and without Reform winning a single seat.

Read more: Pollsters got it wrong in 2015, so could Labour’s lead be overestimated? (The Guardian)

However, it remains unlikely the Lib Dems will finish second. YouGov’s MRP poll projected the party performing strongly, winning 48 seats. This would be up 37 from 2019, but still nowhere near the Tories’ projected 140.

However, amid all this talk about projections, it’s worth remembering they are still only polls and not a definite indicator of how people will vote on 4 July. The 1992 and 2015 elections are notable examples of how polling didn’t match the end results of Tory wins.

Proportional representation, as defined by the UK parliament, is an electoral system "in which the distribution of seats corresponds closely with the proportion of the total votes cast for each party. For example, if a party gained 40% of the total votes, a perfectly proportional system would allow them to gain 40% of the seats."

This differs from the first past the post system, as set out above, in that a relatively high vote share rarely corresponds with increased seats for the smaller parties. In 2019, for example, the Lib Dems won 11.5% of the vote but only 1.7% – 11 – of the 650 seats.

Unsurprisingly, both Reform UK and the Lib Dems support proportional representation.

The Lib Dems this week made it part of their manifesto, with the party saying it would introduce the single transferrable vote method, a form of proportional representation which allows electors to rank their preference of candidates on the ballot.

The party previously sought to change the UK’s voting system while in the coalition government under then-leader Nick Clegg, but voters rejected the plan in a 2011 referendum.