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Boris Johnson’s nightmare from the right

The Lib Dems' North Shropshire victory overshadows a new danger for the Conservatives.

Richard Tice, the leader of Reform UK gives a press conference about Metro Bank. Photo: Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media via Getty Images.

Keep an eye on the Reform Party. As Boris Johnson picks over the carcass of his party’s debacle in North Shropshire, that’s a message even this most careless of prime ministers should not ignore.

Reform UK, the rebranded Brexit Party now led by financier Richard Tice, the partner of journalist Isabel Oakeshott, took only 3.7 5 per cent in Thursday’s by-election, finishing fifth behind the Greens. Contrary to Tice’s claims, this was not even a half-decent result in a seat that voted Leave, let alone the breakthrough he has been claiming. With locals eager to give the Tories a bloody nose by voting tactically for the most likely winner, it’s impossible to agree with Reform’s claims that they would have done much better had their candidate Kirsty Walmsley and her core team not been isolating in the final days of the campaign.

Still, even the 3.75 per cent will be a stone in Johnson’s shoe. It brings into play several marginals narrowly retained by the Conservatives in 2019, seats where Nigel Farage decided to withdraw his candidates to avoid the threat of letting in Labour and a People’s Vote. These include Winchester, Cambs South, Esher, Hastings, Lewes, Pudsey, Wimbledon and Winchester,as well as Cheadle, Cheltenham, Chingford and Chipping Barnet – enough to give Johnson the chills.

It could be far worse. Reform are nearer 6 per cent in some polls, and might have got that in North Shropshire had the Brexit true believer vote not been split between them, the rump of UKIP and Laurence Fox’s Reclaim party, who polled only 375 votes with the ludicrous former MEP and lads’ mag editor Martin Daubney doing even worse as their candidate than Fox himself did in the London mayoral election. Despite Daubney’s talk of having £5million to spend on future elections – surely the definition of throwing good money after bad? – none of the minor Brexiteer parties have more money or more valuable data than Tice’s. Neither do they have Farage to mobilise if needed, for those who like that sort of thing.

Brexit is done (for now), but polls show that even those who voted Leave believe Johnson is making a mess of it. There is no longer a threat of Labour calling for a new vote. This gives Tice the chance to appeal to disgruntled Brexit voters to register their disapproval without risking a reversal of what they voted for in 2016 and 2019.

If he can persuade enough, then 5-6 per cent for Reform, combined with Labour and Lib Dem pushes would seriously imperil Johnson’s majority.

It’s one more thing for the PM to feel less than festive about.