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4 January 2023

How much of a threat is Reform UK to the Tories?

Richard Tice, leader of the successor to the Brexit Party, on why the Conservatives deserve to be “smashed and destroyed”.

By Freddie Hayward

Reform UK is growing in confidence. In the past three months support for the successor to the Brexit Party has jumped from around 3 per cent in opinion polls to 7 per cent. Reform is planning to build its profile this year by holding at least one press conference a month. “We’re the party with momentum,” Richard Tice, its leader, said during a speech in central London today (4 January). “And we’re gaining all the time.”

So what are Reform’s big ideas? More gas and oil extraction. Zero waiting lists and more staff in the NHS. Lower legal and illegal immigration. But the key idea in Tice’s speech was to “make work pay”. The plan is to scrap income tax on earnings up to £20,000 (compared with up to £12,570 at present).

The party is leaving much to the imagination. The income tax policy would be funded through a miraculous return to the workforce of two million people who are on benefits, a ban on the government paying interest on loans issued under quantitative easing, and, of course, that perennial piggy bank: the reduction of wasteful government spending. “All of these things require leadership,” Tice said. “Bold, clear decision-making. No nonsense, no waffle, no spin. It’s all doable.” 

Tice’s diagnosis of the low-pay problem focuses on in-work benefits and low-skilled immigration. He believes both encourage companies to suppress wages. Beyond immigration, I asked him after his speech, what does he think causes the problem? Low productivity? Infrastructure? Regulation? Economic growth, perhaps? He returned to immigration. 

“Pre-freedom of movement, when businesses couldn’t afford the cost of labour, what happened was you invest in capital. That’s how basic economics works since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The moment you change that dynamic by having unlimited low-skilled labour, there’s no incentive for business to invest. So productivity goes down the pan and you just keep importing cheap, low-skilled labour and it’s a disaster.”

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Does Tice support stronger trade unions then? Stagnant pay has also coincided with the strengthening of anti-trade union legislation and the dwindling of union membership. “Trade unions perform a valuable function, but when they overreach themselves they let their own members down,” he replied.

Reform’s main political target is obvious. Before Tice’s speech a screen displayed a Daily Star front page that asked: “Where’s Rishi?” To the right of the screen “Rishi’s lesson: 2 + 2 = ?” was scrawled on a flipchart. “After 12 years, the Tories have broken Britain,” Tice said. “They have literally wrecked our country.”

Better public services, lower immigration and tighter law and order: the parallels with Boris Johnson’s victorious 2019 election campaign are clear. His successors as prime minister, both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, abandoned that territory. Is Tice chasing those 2019 voters? “We’re going after everybody,” he told me. “And over the next few months, we will be coming out with policies that are to the left of where Starmer is on certain issues.”

He continued: “I genuinely think we are seeing the dying days of potentially the last majority Tory government in my lifetime. I’m 58. Frankly, that’s what I hope for. How long do we let this country be wrecked by such levels of incompetence? They deserve to be smashed and destroyed.”

Tice hasn’t always been so keen to see the death of the Conservative Party. In 2019 the Brexit Party’s decision not to stand in Tory-held seats helped to propel Johnson to victory. Tice is adamant no such arrangement would be made again. “I bear the scars on my back, and I still get grief from people who are upset [about the arrangement] and there are reasons why we did what we did, but absolutely no deals,” he said.

The significance of Reform lies in its ability to deny Labour and the Conservatives seats. The party and its predecessors on the right have been pivotal in shaping the debates around Brexit and immigration. Tice would not reveal the number of Reform UK members but said 9,000 had joined since Jeremy Hunt replaced Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor in October. With Conservative backbenchers despairing at the prospect of losing their seats, an alternative right-wing party could prove attractive.

One Reform source confirmed the party was in talks with Conservative MPs about defection but said there was no prospect of this in the next year or so. “[We’d] have to be on at least 12 to 15 points in the polls,” they said. That would be the moment for Sunak to start to worry. 

[See also: Can Rishi Sunak survive the wrath of the right?]

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