Sometimes things that don’t happen are as important as those that do. In the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, about the theft of a racehorse, the failure of a dog to bark is the central fact that allows the crime to be solved. Holmes mentions this ‘curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ to a Scotland Yard detective who is puzzled and tells him: ‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’ Holmes replies: ‘That was the curious incident.’
There is a strong case for regarding the failure of a dog to bark as the central fact of British political life today. As I recently noted on this site, the government has annoyed many of its natural well-wishers, leading about one in ten of them so far to withdraw support and take up residence in the ‘don’t know/won’t vote’ segment of the electorate. Given that lax immigration control appears to be a key driver of this movement, it should not surprise us that very few of the deserters have chosen to throw their lot in with Labour or another left-of-centre party.
But the failure of any right-wing alternative to prosper on the back of this Tory disillusionment is far more curious. When one considers the way Ukip chewed into Conservative poll ratings during David Cameron’s early years, or what the Brexit party did to Theresa May when she tried to dilute the terms of our departure from the EU, it becomes more curious still.
On Thursday the leaders of the only two well-known wannabe insurgent right-of-centre parties were pictured together at the test match at Lords. Richard Tice of Reform UK and Laurence Fox of Reclaim looked like two vaguely posh blokes enjoying a vaguely posh day out.
Fox posted the photo on Twitter under the caption ‘At Lords with the enemy’. Tice replied: ‘Discussing cunning plans.’ Perhaps that was meant to be a consciously self-deprecating reference to Baldrick in Blackadder.
— Laurence Fox ✌🏼🇬🇧✌🏼 (@LozzaFox) August 12, 2021
In fact, the cunning plans of both men have thus far proved just as useless as Baldrick’s. Fox finished sixth in the London mayoral elections with a vote share below 2 per cent, despite lavish funding from a wealthy backer. Reform won just 25,000 votes across London in the assembly elections, finishing below even the desiccated remains of Ukip. It also completely bombed in elections to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.
Neither party even bothered to contest the recent Batley and Spen by-election. Neither has any workable plan to elect its leaders — both Tice and Fox are appointees — or constitute proper local branches, which were the bedrock of Ukip’s successes in municipal elections a decade ago. Reclaim seldom registers any detectable support in opinion polls at all, while Reform tends to chalk up 2 or 3 per cent, probably a residue inherited from its forerunner the Brexit party and ongoing hazy association in the public consciousness with successful TV anchorman Nigel Farage.
This fragmentation on the right, with the seldom plausible but occasionally compelling Fox running his own show divorced from the seldom compelling but generally plausible Tice, is a blessing for one man above all: Boris Johnson.
There is no obvious standard-bearer outside the Tory tribe for fed-up right-of-centre types to rally behind. No snowball to gather mass as it rolls down the mountain. No dog to bark its outrage about the apparent disappearance of many conservative principles from the Johnsonian stables.
In recent days Tice has begun to dip his toe in the waters of migration scepticism after failing to do so for months on end. But it is all rather diffident. As the inheritor of the one right-wing brand that does register in the polls, he is the person with by far the biggest opportunity to build momentum and exert the kind of magnetic pull over right-of-centre voters that could set alarm bells ringing in the Tory high command.
He also has a responsibility to do so, even in the face of recent setbacks such as the withdrawal of his party’s banking facilities. In his own terms, Fox is doing fine as a kind of clown prince of libertarianism. But Tice is potentially a far more serious player.
Reform could build a sizeable core vote if it set out an alternative prospectus for immigration policy that embraces offshore processing of would-be refugees and sets tough tests for potential economic migrants regarding their attitudes as well as their aptitudes.
But there is little to suggest that is about to happen. And so Boris Johnson can continue to watch parts of the Tory coalition jumping to ‘don’t know’ in confident expectation of them jumping back when the next election looms. Mr Cameron and Mrs May would be forgiven for wishing that such a luxury had ever been afforded to them.
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