Why Reform UK remains a mystery

It categorically rules out an electoral pact with the Conservatives, but opts to stand aside in the forthcoming Kingswood by-election. It claims to want to “destroy” the Conservatives, but its honorary president muses about one day leading the party. 

It threatens to unseat Conservative MPs, while simultaneously urging “red wallers” to defect. It boasts that the party sits at 10 per cent in some polls — that is despite consistent underperformance at by-elections.

It claims the Conservative Party and its opponents are “two sides of the same socialist coin”, but warns of “the catastrophic cocktail of Starmergeddon” if Labour is let into No 10 (something its existence will necessarily help enable). It tries desperately to redefine its appeal following Britain’s departure from the EU, but quietly rebrands so the old “Brexit Party” title appears on ballot papers. It hints incautiously at a fully-fledged Nigel Farage return — but the party’s honorary president won’t even show up to their election launch.

Welcome to the ever-mysterious, not-always-consistent world of Reform UK: The Brexit Party. 

In recent weeks, watchers of the Westminster zeitgeist will have clocked how this latest right-of-Conservative outfit, headed by erstwhile entrepreneur Richard Tice, has attracted considerable media attention. 

Indeed, with the party now recording double-digit scores in the polls, columnists can’t help but conclude Reform UK is integral to Rishi Sunak’s political tumult — perhaps even more damaging to the Conservatives’ electoral prospects than the Brexit Party and UKIP in their respective heydays. The prime minister is under siege from all directions, this reading holds: left, centre and now right. 

And, lo, sensing the fourth estate’s appetite for Reform UK content, Tice helmed a New Year press conference last week to lay out his essential pitch. Armed with a projector and a laser pointer, he guided assembled journalists through Reform’s election agenda, PowerPoint slide by PowerPoint slide. 

Of course, for a party that stands little to no chance of gaining a single MP at the next election — let alone of forming a government — policy pronouncements aren’t treated with the same seriousness by voters or analysts. This is a fact that gives Tice a lot of freedom. He can essentially refigure his pitch to whatever chimes best with the Conservative-voting conscience — no repercussions, no hostage to fortune concerns. And the fringe party is lavished with uncritical attention from the Conservative-leaning media — especially on GB News where Tice is a host. The result is a tapestry of culture war tropes, Trussite-esque fiscal policy and heavily romanticised nationalist ideals.

Viewed in full, the overriding narrative of Reform UK: The Brexit Party is one of Conservative and Sunakian “betrayal”. The central subtext of Tice’s declarations last week was that, in the prime minister’s bid to rehabilitate the Conservative Party brand, he has engaged in ritual ideological apostasy — leaving its core voters, for whom Reform UK now presumes to speak, behind. 

The price Sunak must pay for his betrayal, Tice tolls, is the destruction of the Conservative Party entire.

In this way, Tice wants to leave no doubt as to his party’s intent as he repeats at every opportunity his pledge to contest every seat in Great Britain at the next election. And with more than 600 candidates in place and the prospect of a non-aggression pact strenuously denied, Reform UK has the Conservatives quivering. That seems the logical conclusion, at least, from deputy chair Lee Anderson’s claim that Reform UK presents a bigger risk to the country than the Labour Party. 

But after Tice turned to his final PowerPoint slide, the assembled journalists’ key takeaway from the presentation was that which had only been merely alluded to: the future of Nigel Farage. 

Tice bares the brunt of the totemic “Nigel Farage question” that now grips British politics — as politicos ponder will he, won’t he return to frontline politics. The former UKIP leader was, of course, the lead pioneer of right-of-Conservative politics in modern Britain — Tice cannot help but be characterised as a mere pretender to Farage’s throne: a far less effective tribute act.

Tellingly, Tice has a practised line when it comes to journalist’s questions about the former Brexit Party leader. Tice says he is “very confident” that Farage will one day take on a bigger role, but claims that the former UKIP leader is “still assessing”. He describes the former UKIP and Brexit Party leader as a political “poker player” and “the master of political timing”.

It is significant that Tice, who faces the tricky task of carving out an appeal of his own, cannot help but stoke speculation that Farage may one day replace him. With the obvious benefit of gaining coverage in friendly new outlets, it must be the first example in British political history of a party leader openly hinting that he may soon be cast aside in favour of a more effective precursor. 

But, Tice’s insistence notwithstanding, one cannot help but conclude that Farage’s refusal to directly engage with Reform UK is informed by his own reading of the party’s political prospects. 

As UKIP leader, Farage was able to cast a disproportionate shadow over British politics by presenting to the public a clear policy ask: a career-defining desire to leave the European Union. In turn, he has learnt to pick and choose his fights carefully — such as his (victorious) squabble with Coutts over his scandalous “debanking”. 

Indeed, Farage’s shtick from 2010-2016, and to an extent through 2016-2019, was not capitalising on a tarnished Tory brand with a view to replacing it, but seeking to mould the party to his own ends. To this day, Farage boasts about how much he has shaped the Party since 2010 and frequently jokes he may one day seize overall control.

It is easy to see how Farage’s claim that things he fought for are now “quite mainstream” in the Conservative Party and Tice’s assertion that the Tories and Labour are “two sides of the same socialist coin” do not square.

Nigel Farage: Things I fought for are now ‘quite mainstream’ in the Conservative Party

Moreover, Farage, having failed on seven occasions to become an MP, knows better than anyone that the odds are heavily stacked against minor parties in the British political system. Routing the Conservative Party entire, therefore, is a project that Farage, contentedly attending to his GB News plough, may see little mileage in. A fudged comeback, the former UKIP leader also likely calculates, would reframe his other political achievements and append future biographies with an unfortunate final chapter. The former UKIP leader would no longer remain the rebuttal to the aphorism all political lives end in failure. 

So, with Farage’s personal motivations and Reform UK’s political ambitions now diverging, Tice searches desperately for a defining vision.

And Reform UK’s political dilemmas appear to be having some confusing manifestations. For example, the decision not to stand in Kingswood is a clear mystery. At the peak of his powers, Farage would never shirk such a contest — a clear opportunity to deal damage to the Conservatives in a heartland constituency. In 2015, Farage’s UKIP won 7,133 votes in the constituency, a strong third-place finish, so why does Tice shirk this fight? The ostensible pretext, that it is outgoing MP Chris Skidmore’s “grotesque abuse” of public funds, in truth does not come near to a reasonable explanation. 

Ultimately, the most that can be said about Reform UK is that they are filling a hole in the UK’s electoral landscape: a Faragist force, sans Farage, destined to shave a few percentage points off Conservative candidates in some key swing seats. Its uppity claims about the “destruction” of Sunak’s party, as Tice wrestles with enduring problems of purpose and personnel, simply belie very real challenges for Reform UK as a political force. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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