Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage addresses supporters at the Washington Central Hotel in Workington.

Conservatism at the crossroads: Is Sunak ready for a Faragist siege?

Ever since Brexit was delivered in 2019, the right-wing Reform UK has been in search of a new animating spirit. It has dabbled in lockdown scepticism, trialled support for low taxation and has consistently criticised the net zero “obsession”. But the renamed Brexit party has struggled to pin down a unique policy platform or gain media traction. It remained a Faragist party minus Farage; a populist outfit without any popularity. 

That is, it seems, until now. 

Amid frustration that the Conservative government has failed to tackle illegal immigration and has pushed up taxes, Reform UK is restyling itself as the natural receptacle for Sunak-sceptic voters. The party now intends to trade in Tory disillusionment, siphoning off right-of-centre voters from Boris Johnson’s 2019 electoral coalition. 

In a press conference on Wednesday, Reform UK’s leader Richard Tice made no secret of his new political target. Displayed on a screen adjacent to Tice’s lectern was a Daily Star front page, it read: “Where’s Rishi?”. This was only the beginning of the cold-blooded criticism. “After 12 years, the Tories have broken Britain”, Tice said in his address. “They have literally wrecked our country”.

Reform UK now wants to challenge Sunak over the Conservative party’s claim to be the most effective standard-bearer for Brexit Britain. It sets up an extended battle for Britain’s right-of-centre political territory — ground that Tice thinks the “Consocialists” in government have abandoned. 

According to the polls, there is reason for Tice to be cheerful. YouGov puts Reform on 9%, a heady rise from the pre-Sunak days of 2-3%.

This is a development which has Conservative MPs in marginal seats squealing. With the spectre of a right-wing insurgency now haunting the party’s prospects at the next election, the blatant nihilism of the Conservative ranks can only increase.  

Reform UK’s pitch 

In his Wednesday press conference, Tice claimed his party had “bold, brave solutions” to the country’s problems. These include more gas and oil extraction, zero waiting lists within two years, lower legal and illegal immigration and a plan to scrap income tax on earnings up to £20,000 (compared with up to £12,570 at present).

Are such policies deliverable? Tice thinks so. “All of these things require leadership”, the Reform leader said. “Bold, clear decision-making. No nonsense, no waffle, no spin. It’s all doable”. 

In truth, whether such policies are “doable” does not matter. Our first-past-the-post system continues to work against small parties like Reform UK, meaning there is no chance Tice’s proposals will be tested in government. 

This is a fact which gives the party a lot of freedom. Tice can essentially refigure his pitch to whatever chimes best with the Conservative-voting conscience — no repercussions, no strings attached. 

In this way, Tice’s threat is not that he will replace Sunak, but that his party will siphon off votes from the Conservatives come 2024.

We need only look back to the success of UKIP, who took more than a quarter of the vote in the 2014 European Elections, or to the Brexit party’s own performance in the 2019 European elections, to see the threat that Tice poses. The Conservative squealing is well-justified.

Crucially, Tice has announced that the party will field candidates across the UK at the next general election. His party will no longer kowtow to its Conservative big brother as it did in 2019, when Reform stood down candidates in 317 Tory-held seats. 

The Farage factor 

However, it also worth recalling that UKIP and the Brexit party’s success in 2014 and 2019 was crafted by the unique campaigning zeal of Nigel Farage, not Tice. It begs the question: is Tice, the property investor turned political agitator, really the individual to head a right-wing renaissance?

Naturally, Farage has remained coy about making another political comeback. Responding to recent reports the UK could pursue a Swiss-style Brexit arrangement with the EU, he tweeted “this level of betrayal will never be forgiven”; in his strongest hint yet at a return to frontline politics yet, he added that he was “not ruling anything out”.

Since Sunak was coronated as prime minister in October, Farage has become increasingly outspoken in his opposition to the Conservatives. In fact, it is his fever-pitch analysis of events, beamed daily to the GB News viewership, that Tice has picked up on and duly followed. 

In December, a deeply nihilistic Farage relayed: “I’m a brokenist, I think everything’s broken. … Space has been more than created [because] you’ve basically got a social democrat Conservative Party, a social democrat Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats who are, to my mind, very much a localised policy.”

He added: “The optimism was that Brexit was the beginning of a whole new politics. Actually, we’ve gone back to Oxbridge and the chums’ club.”

The GB News anchor’s enduring cultural and political relevance means that no matter how many press conferences Tice holds, he is destined to remain in a Farage-shaped shadow. The media cannot help but view the Reform leader as a mere seat-warmer for a Farage-fronted comeback. In any case, Tice simply does not have the one-time UKIP leader’s political nous. 

Sunak under siege?

Tice’s first real test will come with the May 2022 local elections, where smaller parties have historically excelled. At this juncture, Reform UK will promote itself as the perfect vehicle for disgruntled Conservative voters. Farage, you would imagine, would also get involved in the campaign to some extent.

In further good news for Reform’s prospects, its electoral pitch has been bolstered by two recent defections from the Conservative party. In December 2022, David White, a member of Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, who also serves as the South Yorkshire area Conservative chairman, and Richard Langridge, a member of West Oxfordshire District Council, defected to Reform UK. 

Cllr White later told The Telegraph: “The Conservative Party has changed, with them being unable or unwilling to make the big decisions. I am convinced that they are not in tune with the working people here in Barnsley and across the UK”. 

White’s sentiment underlines that Sunak’s biggest problem at the moment is Conservative apathy and disillusion. It is therefore Reform’s job to stoke the disgruntlement, highlighting perceived failures over “small boats” and continuing to stoke concern about a frustrated or stolen Brexit.

But you cannot help but feel that capitalising on a tarnished Tory brand is Farage’s particular political niche; Tice will only ever be a mere stand-in. So while Sunak will be concerned with Reform’s recent rise, only after a Farage return will outright panic set in. 

There is no doubt that the combination of very real voter apathy with the failures to tackle illegal immigration, has created the perfect conditions for a comeback.