4 January 2024

How worried should Rishi be about Reform UK?


I can only remember seeing Richard Tice in person once. It was at the Oval, last July, on the final day of the Ashes. My father and I were huddled out of the rain during an afternoon delay, disconsolately coming to terms with the prospect of the Aussies winning the series down to little more than overhead conditions. Tice came striding past, one assumes off to a better class of bar than we could manage. 

Fortunately, the skies cleared, and Stuart Broad and Moeen Ali made quick work of winning the Test and levelling the series. For sharing in that alone, I can feel a sense of kinship and respect with the leader of Reform UK. We have been driven to despair by our country’s performance in recent years. But we work through our frustrations in rather different ways. 

Whilst I overcome my neuroses by blogging about CCHQ for a living, Tice’s method of therapy is a little more extravagant. Having been a Tory member and staunch Eurosceptic, he quit in 2019 to help establish the Brexit Party. Now rechristened, under Tice’s leadership, Reform has a new mission as singular as leaving the European Union: to destroy the Conservative Party. 

He made that clear in a speech in Westminster yesterday. For Reform, the 2024 election was about ‘smashing the Tories’. There would be no non-aggression pacts with Conservatives, as in 2019. Pledging to stand a candidate in every seat, he laid out policies designed to appeal to discontented Tories: cutting government spending and income tax, slashing immigration, junking Net Zero. 

Ben Habib – Tice’s deputy, and their candidate in the upcoming Wellingborough by-election – used his speech to praise Margaret Thatcher. Despite playing up fears of ‘Starmergeddon’, it was clearly Rishi Sunak their party has in its sights. As in Mid-Bedfordshire, enough Reform votes can stop a Tory victory. Lee Anderson has been prompted to call them a bigger threat than Labour (while playing footsie with them on the side). 

And that’s before you factor in a return by a figure conspicuous by his absence yesterday: Nigel Farage. While Tice made clear he was confident that his predecessor turned penis-pizza-muncher would play a sizeable role in his party’s upcoming campaign, it remains unclear what that might be. Will he be a candidate? Chief spokesman and campaigner? Or is Tice only keeping the throne warm until his return? 

According to Professor Sir John Curtice, a Farage return would be the ‘worst nightmare’ of many Tory MPs. Reform’s ratings have risen from 5% to 10% in the last year, sans Farage. But if he made his way back from the GB News studio (or its nearest saloon bar), that could spike to 14%. According to YouGov, he is more popular with 2019 Tories than Sunak.

Should Downing Street be worried? They should admit that Reform’s polling successes have so far been a product of Sunak’s own mistakes. By raising the salience of immigration and small boat crossings whilst presiding over record levels of the former and little progress on the latter, the Prime Minister has encouraged disappointed Conservatives to turn to a party that promises radical action. 

But that doesn’t mean Reform UK should be taken all that seriously. They are a party for golf club bores, by golf club bores. Neither Farage’s talents for campaigning nor presenting are matched by Tice, a man who seems more likely to give you a P45 than a pint. Farage is 59, and well-ensconced at GB News. He is more likely to keep flirting with the Tories than he is to ride to Tice’s rescue. 

Reform UK is not a serious campaigning organisation. Its ability to turn opinion poll ratings into actual votes has so far proven appalling. It won only six seats at the last local elections. At no by-election since then has it achieved more than 5.4% of the vote. It was the 23.9% swing to Labour that did for the Tories in Tamworth, not the small number of 2019 Conservatives that heard Tice’s siren call. 

Reform UK most appeals to the sorts of grumpy shire Tories most receptive to a ‘vote Reform, get Starmer’ message: aging middle-class Eurosceptics in the South who think Britain has been going to the dogs since Maggie left Number 10. These are exactly the people Number 10 will hammer with warnings about Labour’s tax bombshell or U-turns on Brexit for the next few months. 

Tice appears not to have realised that first Vote Leave and then Boris Johnson won the North and Midlands by rejecting the sort of bastardised Thatcherism that he is peddling. If he was serious about winning disillusioned Leave voters in the North and Midlands, he would be matching his tax cuts with pledges for more money for the NHS. But Tice isn’t interested in them. He only cares about his ex. 

Every time Tice makes a speech promising to go all Carthaginian on the Tories, CCHQ should make like Regina George and ask why he’s so obsessed with them, before leaving him to fulminate. Reform lacks money and campaigning infrastructure. The more airtime they get during an election, the greater the paucity of their pitch and appeal will become apparent. Tice is a fan of Ron DeSantis. He will share the Florida Governor’s embarrassing fate. 

Even if Farage did return, the best he could hope for is to repeat his failure at the 2015 election: to stack up millions of votes, but win only one seat, crucified on the altar of first-past-the-post. Reform might allow Labour to sneak a few slim wins. But they would only be making a hefty defeat even more substantial. Would Tice cheer a Keir Starmer landslide on election morning? 

If there is a third party threat that Sunak should be worried about, it is a much more familiar one: the Liberal Democrats. Yesterday, Ed Davey ventured down to Guildford, to stand in front of a big billboard labelled ‘Time’s Up! Ed Davey’s Tory Removals. Vote Liberal Democrat’. That Lib Dem HQ thought this was worth spending time and money might suggest I’m overestimating them, but bear with. 

In 2015, the Conservatives’ unexpected majority was based on gobbling on their erstwhile coalition partners, negating any losses of votes to UKIP. Whilst the Lib Dems have hardly had an easy time of it since then – swapping debates over the Biblical view of gay sex for a misplaced faith in both cancelling Brexit and Jo Swinson’s appeal – they came second to the Tories in 81 seats at the last election. 

That Davey chose Surrey to launch his New Year’s pitch is no surprise. In last May’s local elections, while the Tory vote was flat across the North and Midlands, it fell to 3.7% in the South East and 4.6% in the South West. Meanwhile the Lib Dems picked up 407 seats, overwhelmingly in what they call the Blue Wall: long-standing Tory heartlands that they believe are as vulnerable as Labour’s were in 2019. 

The Lib Dems have won four by-elections off the Conservatives so far this Parliament. Yesterday, they briefed that they would be targeting the more than 2 million people in London and the South East hit by the Government’s tax threshold freeze. Unlike Tice, they know exactly who their target voters are: wealthy Southerners, disillusioned by Brexit, who want to give the Tories a good hiding. 

Unlike Reform UK, they can hope to rely on tactical voting by Labour voters to help get the Conservatives out. So while both Tice and Davey might currently be hovering around 10% in the polls, it is the latter CCHQ should be stressed about – especially as the Lib Dems have made Jeremy Hunt’s seat a key target. Ignore Tice’s motley crew and focus on the yellow peril. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.