17 June 2024

Reform’s plans would make Britain less conservative


I like Nigel Farage. This is not a new habit, prompted by his popularity with ConservativeHome readers (of which I am Assistant Editor) or his willingness to have me on his show. It is long-standing.

Somewhere in the dark armpits of the internet exists a picture of my fourteen-year-old self in a UKIP rosette I found lying around my school. Around the time of the 2014 European elections, Faragism was all the rage among my class. 

But we soon grew up. Within a few years, I was standing as the Tory candidate at my school election, while my North London contemporaries were trotting after their parents, voting Remain and signing up to the Lib Dems. But Farage had held an obvious appeal to naughty public schoolboys like me. He was one of us: sticking two fingers up to the prefects, making a nuisance of himself and having a laugh. 

A similar feeling explains his popularity with the members of a political party he quit three decades ago and has now made it his mission to destroy. Conservatives see themselves in Farage. He likes a pint and doesn’t like Brussels. He wants tax cuts, slashed immigration and an end to Net Zero nonsense. Compare that to Rishi Sunak’s meagre offering, and the hearts of despairing Tories are set a-flutter. 

Well, some of them. As I’ve written previously, one of the (many) barriers to any uniting of the right under a Farage banner is the substantial force of the Tory centre-left. Call them One Nation, call them Wets, call them Remoaners, or Rory Stewart fanboys: they are a not-insubstantial part of the Conservative coalition, in and out of Parliament, and cannot be wished away. They also hate Farage. 

Accordingly, they are not the part of the Conservative coalition that Farage is targeting. The decision to launch his manifesto today in Wales today is a sign of his ambitions. He not only wants to win Tory voters disillusioned by the last fourteen years, but to complete the much heralded ‘realignment’: re-unite Leave voters, including long-standing Labour voters once wooed by Boris Johnson. 

Doing so in the land of Dylan Thomas, rolling hills, and 20 MPH speed limits shouldn’t be too difficult. As Farage pointed out as he launched his ‘Contract with the People’, a quarter century of Labour rule from Cardiff has demonstrated that higher taxes and higher spending per head does not naturally result in superior outcomes. The people of Wales have been failed by both major parties, but one in particular.

Even so, they must have some form of fondness for socialism with Celtic characteristics, or they wouldn’t re-elect Labour in the Senedd. As such, even if Farage is placing his tanks on Vaughan Gething’s lawn, it can’t be said that he is mimicking his policy prospectus. Indeed, Reform UK’s pitch is about as right-wing as you can get within Britain’s Overton window.

Reviewing its proposals is to discover that Keir Starmer’s personal genie has a right-wing cousin. Concerned that the tax burden is too high? Farage pledges to lift six million people out of income tax, raise the higher rate threshold from £50,000 to £70,000, slash corporation tax, and hike both VAT and inheritance tax thresholds. It makes Kwasi Kwarteng’s efforts look like the ramblings of a Corbynista.

The goodies don’t stop there. Farage has pledged ‘Net Zero migration’. He would charge a migrant tax for every foreign worker an employer brings in, as well as leaving the ECHR to produce an illegal migration strategy with a more teeth than Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda flop. 

On and on the document goes. The general spirit is one of ‘everything Sunak can pledge, I can do better’. Cut NHS waiting lists? Reform will have them down to zero within two years. Tinker with Net Zero targets? Farage will junk them entirely. The Conservatives’ tax-cutting plans hinge on reducing the benefits bill, but Reform’s pledge of a ‘two-strike’ approach to job seekers is more eye-catching. 

In short, Farage’s ‘Contract’ – manifesto, he suggests, is a word associated by voters with ‘lies’ – is a compendium of cask strength ideas that rather a few Tories wished had wormed their way into their own collective policy document. But even if the not-quite-a-manifesto has Reform’s once-and-future leader looming outside Number 10 on its cover, this is not a serious plan for ruling. 

Like the Liberal Democrats before 2010, Farage’s appeal lies never having been in government. He has never had to compromise, coalition-build, or boss about a civil servant. He has pledged what he likes from the comfort of perpetual opposition. He influences but does not lead. 

As Johnson found, the switch from commentating to governing is not easy. Going from the GB News studio to facing down Whitehall would not be a doddle for Farage and whichever of his MPs hadn’t had their membership suspended before they’d even entered Parliament. The Blob would take one look at Nigel and his Merry Men and laugh. The system would eat him up and spit him out. 

Fortunately, this is all stuff that Farage understands. His ambition is not to enter government. Indeed, he is helped by the fact that, if Tories consider a Labour landslide a foregone conclusion, it frees them up to vote for him. This ‘Contract’ is not so much a policy prospectus, but a death warrant for the Conservatives that Farage is keenly encouraging its former voters to sign. Blood will have blood. 

When Reform suggest they will cut £50bn in government spending, or introduce wholesale changes to the planning and tax systems, they mean to be taken seriously, not literally. It is a signal of their intentions. Make me Leader of the Opposition, Farage demands: not Ed Davey, or whichever shell-shocked Tory emerges from the wreckage. I will show Starmer what Opposition really looks like. 

As a negative strategy, it is an effective one. But for the future of the right, it is not particularly helpful. An opposition lead by Farage is not going to do the hard intellectual, organizational, and ideological work required to launch a Stepping Stones 2. Unless Farage swaps the golf club bores for more serious private sector individuals, Reform UK will not change a jot about Britain. This is fantasy politics. 

Hence why, on its second page, their ‘Contract’ encourages voters to ‘imagine’ a better country. As superficially attractive as Reform’s offering is, that is all it will let voters to do. Farage comes not to save the British right, but to bury it. Today’s launch was not the beginning of something, but an ending. Wiping out the Tories will make Britain less Conservative, but not more conservative. 

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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.