From the moment the Conservatives called this summer election they seemed doomed: Sunak had failed to deliver on his five promises, much of the electorate had given up on him, and Starmer looked set for power. But there still seemed like the possibility of a hung parliament, or perhaps Labour only getting a small majority, rather than a landslide.

Last week, my polling firm J.L. Partners did a poll for the Rest is Politics podcast, which showed the Tories pushing Labour down to a 12-point lead. That was nothing to get excited about, but with Reform UK still on 12 per cent, it looked like there might be a way for the Tories to squeeze third-party voters to reduce Labour’s advantage further.

With current Reform voters Farage has a net positivity rating of +79. That is God-like

Even before Farage announced that he would be taking over as leader of Reform, this was already looking more difficult. Our latest poll, released on Monday, showed the Labour lead extending to 17 points, buoyed by ‘early middle aged’ voters and Liberal Democrats folding behind Starmer. Hesitations about Rishi Sunak and the party’s national service policy were part of the reason. Critically though, the Reform vote – which Sunak must squeeze to below 5 per cent if he wants to have any chance of depriving Labour of a majority – remained firmly at 12 per cent.

Whereas before it was theoretically possible for the Tories to win over these voters,  Nigel Farage has now locked in that Reform vote. With current Reform voters he has a net positivity rating of +79. That is God-like. I’m not exaggerating: that is a higher rating than the King, and higher even than the late Queen had with the public.

In the same poll only one in three Reform voters said they were open to considering voting Conservative. Expect that number to come down further now their man is in the race.

Farage has had something of a reputation makeover in the last six months. Before he went into the I’m a Celebrity jungle in November, he was seen as frank and straight-talking but lacking in relatability. Now, as well as the strongman they always respected, many voters in the middle see Farage as someone they might like too.

All this means there is no understating the significance of his announcement yesterday. Farage’s presence and the excitement he brings to this campaign now means he will dominate it. His return is Sunak’s worst nightmare and a total repudiation of the prime minister’s ‘go early’ strategy that was supposed to flush Farage out.

Sunak now faces this new threat with a public deeply disaffected with politics, the Conservative party in the doldrums and immigration a top three issue for the public. It is the most fertile ground for Farage yet and truly dire for the Tories.

What should the Tories do now? It would be wrong, in my view, to assume their policy blitz of the last week has caused them problems. It is true that the national service announcement did drive up Labour votes. But it is reasonable to think this would have happened anyway as Labour rolled out their message to 2019 Liberal Democrat and Green voters. The only option for the Tories at this election is to target voters on their right: the pension triple lock plus resonated well with this group.

But policy has its limitations. Winning Reform voters is going to be so much harder now because Farage embodies their values. He can also make the fair observation that Labour will win anyway, so a vote for Reform is cost-free.

The Conservatives might do well to take a leaf from this playbook. Rather than pretending they can win, they should put the spotlight on the consequences of a crushing Labour majority. They should say that a vote for Reform simply means higher immigration levels under Starmer, or more woke culture, or higher taxes. This is likely to be more effective than trying to ape Farage at his own policy which will simply divide the Conservative party and make it harder to recover afterwards.

Keir Starmer should not rest completely easy. In an analysis for the Sun a few weeks ago, we showed that Farage re-entering the campaign could take some voters from Labour too. Farage in parliament also makes Starmer’s job in government harder.

But there are few Tory cherries to be picked here. Farage’s re-entry has changed the game. For the first time, a genuine wipeout of the Conservatives is a serious possibility.

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