Talks spark fears of Johnson and Farage leading Tories lurch to the right

Meagre crumbs of optimism from local election results means plotting ends to unseat Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

Former British prime minister Boris Johnson is understood to be in talks with Nigel Farage that could lead the Conservative Party to move to the hard right in the event of a general election defeat. EPA
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Talks between Boris Johnson and anti-immigration campaigner Nigel Farage have increased concerns that the Conservative Party could move further to the right if it is defeated in the next general election.

That outcome has become increasingly likely after the last set of UK local council elections were declared at the weekend, which point towards Keir Starmer leading a Labour government this autumn.

But the results were not so disastrous as to activate a planned back bench plot to unseat Rishi Sunak, with rebel MPs instead leaving the Prime Minister to “own” the looming defeat.

From now until election day, most likely in October or November, there will be a battle over which direction the party takes to fight Labour in opposition.

A divide is opening among Tories on whether to tack further to the right, with harsher migration and lower taxation to challenge the threat of the Reform UK party – which was founded by Mr Farage – or to move to the moderate centre where elections are generally won.

Boris talks

An indication that right-wingers are making the first move to take control has come after it was confirmed that disgraced former prime minister Boris Johnson had been in talks with Mr Farage.

With Reform currently polling at about 15 per cent, with its tough immigration and hard Brexit policies, it looks set to take a considerable chunk of Conservative votes, potentially leaving the Tories with fewer than 200 MPs post-election.

Political commentators believe Mr Johnson and others could then bring Mr Farage into the Conservatives to help make it a hard-right party.

Allies of the pair have been in contact with Mr Johnson recently declaring he will choose a time to re-enter frontline politics, likely in a by-election within the next two years.

However, a spokesman for Mr Johnson said his main priority was focusing on victory in Ukraine, writing a book and public speaking.

Nuggets of optimism

No mention was made of helping his former chancellor Mr Sunak win the next election but the current Prime Minister at least now knows the threat to unseat him – with any replacement becoming the fifth Tory premier in as many years – have receded.

He will draw on the few nuggets of optimism from the local elections in which the Conservatives managed to hold on to the Tees Valley mayoralty and did not finish third to Reform in the Blackpool by-election.

A cut in interest rates in the coming months, a further decline in inflation and the first Rwanda deportation flights taking off could all help form a political miracle to overturn the Tories current 20-point polling deficit.

As Labour secured only 34 per cent of the local elections vote, with the Conservatives on 27 per cent, that led to the suggestion of a hung parliament in the general election, with Labour 32 seats short of a majority.

“These results suggest we are heading for a hung parliament, with Labour as the largest party,” Mr Sunak told The Times. “Keir Starmer propped up in Downing Street by the SNP, Liberal Democrats and the Greens would be a disaster for Britain.”

However, the results did not include Scotland, where Labour should do well given the ruling SNP’s current political decline, while independents generally fare better in local contests

Labour was also not helped by many Muslim voters turning against it for its failure to strongly condemn Israel over Gaza, although it did manage to hold on to the London mayoralty, with Sadiq Khan re-elected for a record third term.

'Prepare for disaster'

Less welcome for the Conservatives was the latest YouGov poll that put them on 18 per cent and Labour at 44 per cent.

That polling and poor election results, with the Conservatives losing 474 out of 989 councillors, led to right-wing rebels setting out their stall.

“The hole to dig us out is the PM’s,” said Suella Braverman, the hardline former home secretary, adding it was too late to change leader as not even a “superman or superwoman” could restore the party’s fortunes.

“At this rate we will be lucky to have any Conservative MPs at the next election,” she added.

The arch-Brexiteer David Frost also wrote damningly of moderate Tories in The Daily Telegraph, stating that “genuine Conservatives must now face the fact that we must prepare for disaster”.

Clearly Mr Sunak will have a substantial task to motivate his party when MPs return to Westminster on Tuesday.

Updated: May 06, 2024, 1:18 PM