Richard Tice is not Nigel Farage. That seemed to be the message when I met the property developer-turned-populist and successor to the UK’s notorious Brexiteer-in-chief. In March, the mild-mannered multimillionaire took over the leadership of the Brexit Party – rechristened “Reform UK” in January after Brexit (allegedly) got done.
“We’re a new political brand,” he said with a smile.
Tice, 57, embodies the rebrand. His healthy tan, flop of sandy hair and dimples give him a glossier look than his predecessor – the Faragist campaign-trail ale is swapped for a small latte at a riverside café opposite parliament.
Tice drives an electric car (and feels healthier for avoiding the temptation of petrol station snacks), describes himself as a “fan” of renewables, and his Apple watch flashes in the autumn sun.
The Brexit Party won the largest national vote share at the European elections in 2019 (30.5 per cent), and 29 seats in the parliament it so longed to exit (Tice was elected MEP for the East of England). Now, Reform UK has three councillors, and is polling around 5 per cent in national polls.
“Launching any brand in any walk of life in any industry is hard, of course,” Tice told me. “It’s actually good that there’s very little crossover recognition [from its Brexit Party origins] because we want to come up with solutions to the challenges of tomorrow, not the issues of yesterday.”
While his predecessor accuses the Royal National Lifeboat Institution of providing a “taxi service” for migrants, and thunders against the Rolling Stones dropping “Brown Sugar” from their set list on GB News, Tice is less keen on fighting culture wars.
“The woke issues drive us all bonkers, daily, absolutely bonkers. But the truth is they don’t pay the bills,” he warned.
His speech at Reform UK’s first party conference made no mention of statues, “snowflakes” or cancel culture. A fleeting aside about the BBC extracted some hopeful applause, but that was about it.
“The culture wars and woke issues irritate and frustrate and annoy me as much as I think they do millions of people up and down the country, and they are really important in terms of the heritage and history and pride [that] most people get annoyed if we try and dumb down,” Tice told me.
“But I guess I’m most focused on solutions to the problems that affect people’s daily lives. The culture wars irritate the hell out of us, but they don’t impact on your ability to put food on the table and pay the mortgage or the rent week in, week out, and the ability to see a GP. And over the next 18 months, that’s the real issue.”
Instead of waging a war on woke, Tice wants to focus on “reforming solutions to the challenges that affect people’s daily lives. If we don’t talk about them then there’s going to be no progress.”
Some ideas are to the right of the Tories – vouchers for private healthcare to achieve zero NHS waiting lists, the abolition of inheritance tax for 98 per cent of estates, the scrapping of the BBC licence fee and the abandonment of “net stupid”, or the net-zero carbon emissions target (Tice declared that “the Tory boiler ban will freeze your gran”). He also wants to take six million people out of income tax.
Others are more surprising: an elected House of Lords, the nationalisation of 50 per cent of utilities (with the other half in UK pension funds), solar panels for five million-plus homes, and an anti-austerity programme.
“Everyone’s totally unnecessarily panicking about the quantity of government debt. It’s ludicrous,” he said, accusing the Tories of “austerity mark two”.
A Tory member and donor before cutting up his membership card under David Cameron in 2012, Tice calls the Conservatives “Con-socialists”, seeing them as a party of “high tax, high regulation and the nanny state”.
One of the “Bad Boys of Brexit”, Tice was described by fellow Leave.EU founder Arron Banks as “the acceptable face of Leave.EU… The one they’d want speaking to the police if they were all in a car and got pulled over.” (He practically winced while using the word “Remoaner” when I asked about the lorry driver shortage.)
In the 2019 general election, the Brexit Party stood aside in 317 seats to help Tory candidates win a pro-Brexit majority. It did the same at the Batley and Spen by-election in July to boost the Conservatives’ chances.
Now, with Reform UK aiming to stand 600 candidates at the next general election (with 330 already approved), Tice insists “we’re not standing down for the Con-socialists again”, arguing “democracy works best when there’s more choice”.
“The truth is they [the Tories] have no principles, no fundamental values except being in power. Boris is a brilliant salesman, and most salesmen overpromise and under-deliver, and I think Boris is the absolute epitome of that,” Tice said.
During the pandemic, Reform UK opposed lockdowns. Tice even hired a helicopter to film the “Freedom March” against restrictions in central London earlier this year.
Double-jabbed himself (“I’m pro-vaccine, but pro-choice”), he nevertheless had to delete a tweet containing misleading information about the vaccine in July. While he decried the “collateral damage” of lockdowns, Tice described being moved watching people paint thousands of red hearts on to the Covid memorial wall near where we met.
“All of these conspiracy theories, the people who are way out there, I’ve got no time for any of that stuff,” he said.
Is he concerned about being associated with conspiracy theorists?
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “People try and label [us as] that.”
Yet Tice now believes that “we’re more likely to have an energy lockdown than a Covid lockdown”. Owing to rising gas prices, he warned of a “30-40 per cent chance that the government will be forcing big energy users to shut down one or two days a week”, with workers in those industries sent home this winter if it’s particularly cold.
A return to the three-day week? “I just think it’s a risk out there – whether it’s three days, whether it’s four days,” he replied.
“When the Tories took control, we were a net exporter of energy, we’re now a net importer,” he said. “The Tory policy is basically to impoverish the nation.”
Voters are yet to be convinced. With the big battles over Brexit and Covid restrictions behind him, Richard Tice’s next challenge will be far greater than escaping the shadow of Nigel Farage.