Can Reform UK really walk the walk?

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Richard Tice says his ambition is to “destroy the Conservative Party.” It is certainly a bold statement for a man most people have never heard of.

Even as leader of Reform UK, the right-wing populist party that has been ranked third in a recent Redfield and Wilton poll, Mr Tice is still firmly under the shadow of Nigel Farage.

The setup of Reform UK is unconventional: it operates more as a company than a traditional political party, and Nigel Farage is the majority shareholder. From this position, Mr Farage is still teasing a return to politics. As a figure deeply entrenched in the public political consciousness, Mr Farage’s active involvement could prove a tremendous boost to Reform UK.

Like his party, Richard Tice rose from the ashes of The Brexit Party and he became leader in 2021. On his website, the multi-millionaire property investor boasts that he is a campaigner, a confident leader, and a sports enthusiast who pays his taxes and is “well over 6ft tall.”

In his recent Sunday Sermon on GB News, he identified one of the most significant challenges facing the UK as “the obsession with Net Zero.” Reform UK’s view is that business and working people are bearing the brunt of the net zero strategy and instead, we should use our own British energy reserves to keep wealth and jobs here in the UK – they believe that the government’s plan is “net stupid.”

If Mr Farage decides against returning for the campaign, Reform UK might not pose much of a threat at all

What Mr Tice would like to see is net zero immigration. This comes in the form of a one-in-one-out approach: in 2022 for example, this would have seen 557,000 permitted highly-skilled migrants. Reform UK, according to themselves, is the “only party committed to stopping the boats.” Given the chance, they would leave the European Convention on Human Rights and use existing legislation to put an end to illegal migration. The trouble with – or perhaps the benefit of – being a fringe party, however, is that they will not have to reckon with implementing any of these policies: as it stands, Reform UK are unlikely to win any seats at the election.

Nevertheless, the Conservative Party is rattled. Rishi Sunak has warned that every vote for Mr Farage is a vote for Sir Keir Starmer. Clearly, Mr Sunak is concerned about Reform UK splitting the right-wing vote, and perhaps even luring away party activists and important Conservative donors. It is worth noting that an informal deal between the two parties certainly contributed to Johnson’s thumping victory in 2019.

There will be no such deals in 2024. Every vote will count for the Conservatives in the upcoming election and even a modest defection to Reform UK could cost them a number of seats. Displeased by the delay on Brexit, dismayed at the large-scale tax increases after the pandemic and disappointed by a failing immigration strategy, it is perhaps not surprising the right of the electorate are reconsidering their options. Reform UK, with its tough “common sense” policies and radical tax cuts, could prove a thorn in the side of the Conservatives in the run-up to the election.

Whether he can, as he promises, “take Rishi Sunak to task,” is another matter

But all this is working under the assumption that every Reform UK voter would otherwise have voted Conservative. Of course, a portion would; but others may abstain or, having been won over by the Conservatives in 2019, return to Labour. Disillusioned by both main parties, some may even vote for the Liberal Democrats. Whether it be the Referendum Party of the 1990s, UKIP, The Brexit Party or Reform UK, there has been talk of a threat to the Conservatives from the right for 30 years. So far, it has born little electoral fruit.

Notably, Mr Farage was behind three of these parties; he has incredible political influence for a man who has run seven times to become an MP and lost seven times. It is telling that Mr Sunak’s warning refers not to Reform UK itself, not to Mr Tice, but to Mr Farage. Apparently, even the Prime Minster views Mr Farage as the spiritual leader of Reform UK. In its present state, Reform UK has something of an identity problem. Is Mr Tice just keeping the seat warm for Mr Farage? If Mr Farage decides against returning for the campaign, Reform UK might not pose much of a threat at all.

Reform UK is certainly up for a fight with the Conservative Party and the next battleground will be the Wellingborough by-election on 15th February. Deputy Leader Ben Habib, another holdover from The Brexit Party, is standing. Whether he can, as he promises, “take Rishi Sunak to task,” is another matter.

Image: Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons

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