She strode through the crowd, up the steps and onto the stage in a turquoise blue dress. Gripping a podium flanked by two Union flags, she proclaimed: “Good afternoon, Reformers!”
Alex Phillips, the former Brexit Party MEP, was looking out at 800 candidates and supporters of Reform UK in a low-ceilinged conference centre in Derby. We are living in a world, she pressed on, “in which social change is dizzying and it’s disturbing. Where everything we hold as true and valuable seems to be on trial. And [that] is being more rapidly dismantled by those who want to tear our culture apart, those who brought the wrecking ball to our unity and want to destroy our shared values and take our freedoms.”
Phillips was the third speaker that morning last month, at Reform UK’s spring rally before the local elections on 4 May. The party was growing in confidence, hovering around 6 per cent in the polls. Richard Tice, a former property investor who now presents a show on TalkTV, replaced Nigel Farage as leader in March 2021. Tice champions a blend of cultural conservatism and economic liberalism, a strangely selective imitation of Liz Truss. His key policy is to scrap income tax for those earning less than £20,000. But Reform is different. The party contains multitudes.
In under twenty minutes, Phillips railed against pornography, neoliberalism, the “brainwashing” of children, hyper-sexualisation, banks and the “persecution of the people by vested interests”. She cast politicians in Westminster as representatives of the EU, the United Nations and the World Economic Forum. “I didn’t realise there is a constituency called Davos,” she said, to murmurs of approval from the crowd. Ann Widdecombe sat listening on a plastic chair at the back of the room.
The audience was reassured when Phillips said she was proud to be British. “I am white and I don’t feel ashamed,” she growled. Her conception of the elite was all-encompassing. Her allusions to conspiracy theories were blatant. The elite wanted “voters silenced in the pursuit of some ever-changing and dangerously untested new world order”, she said. “And was not Brexit our clarion call to hear our voice?”
Phillips left the stage and Tice trotted on. He ran the audience through the country’s problems with panache. He quoted the “late great Ronnie Reagan” reverently. He called net-zero ambitions “criminally negligent” for killing grannies by making their heating too expensive then praised carbon dioxide for its role in photosynthesis. It was unclear what was a joke. Instead of starving plants of CO2, Tice would make immigration net zero. Such a policy, he said, would protect public services and boost wages by reducing the labour supply. And another thing, he said, we need to leave the European Court of Human Rights. “We invented human rights. We don’t need some foreign court telling us about our own human rights, thank you very much.”
The first session finished and people streamed through the doors, past the anti-net zero stall, past the £30 Tice-style turquoise ties, into the car park beside the river Derwent where they huffed on vapes, cigarettes and cigars.
The crowd was a mix of hardcore supporters and those disillusioned with the two main political parties. Mike, a senior shop steward for twenty years in the chemical industry, said he was there because Labour once “represented working people, and now it just represents minorities and people on benefits”. He’s a fan of GB News, but Julia Hartley-Brewer on TalkTV is his default viewing in the morning. I asked him what finishing Brexit means.
“Leaving the European Court of Human Rights,” he said bluntly, exhaling cigarette smoke. I pointed out that the court has nothing to do with the EU. “We won’t be able to control our borders while we are a member of the European Council on Human Rights,” he said. Explaining why Brexit wasn’t done, Mike mentioned recycling, Yes Minister, people throwing eggs at the King, fracking, Chris Whitty, and the benefits system. His wife, Fiona, joined us. She handed her husband a bottle of water and said: “It’s also about not having a left-wing civil service.”
“I don’t like rubbish or anything,” she continued. “I’m not anti making our world a nice place to live, but taking my gas boiler away [is wrong]. Some countries have decided that gas is actually a green fuel, but we’ve got so used to being in Europe and over-interpreting EU legislation that we haven’t moved away from that. Why can’t we make our own decisions about nuclear and fracking? Because we’re still in the mindset.”
[See also: Will anyone dare defy the Nimby Party?]
Across the asphalt a 24-year-old council candidate, dressed in a dark suit and stripped tie, said he was there because he was “sick to death of the Tories… none of them seem to have common sense”. Stood next to him, a fellow candidate nodded.
“They haven’t done Brexit,” his companion said. “They still haven’t closed our borders. They haven’t come out of ECHR. They haven’t stopped any of the regulations. They haven’t deregulated tax, deregulated business. There is an unacceptable amount of uncontrolled immigration. And as Alex was saying this morning, I’m sick and tired of being called a racist.”
The Conservatives’ underhand policy on migrant Channel crossings – framing the problem as one of greater numbers arriving instead of a failure to process those here already – breeds distrust of government and forces people to take their concerns elsewhere. After 13 years in government, Conservative rhetoric is breaking free from reality. With migrants now exposed on the Channel rather than hidden from view in the back of lorries, the salience of immigration is rising.
And Labour? “They’ll just build a bridge,” one Reform-curious man said. He gestured to the woman beside him and said: “Erica’s got a friend whose autistic kid can’t get a schooling place in the local area. That’s mass migration.” As we walked back into the foyer, I asked whether he thought inadequate public services were a reason to increase taxes not to cut them, as Reform UK wanted. “At the moment, we pay the tax but we don’t get the service.”
Back inside, the gulf between the speakers and the spoken to became clear. In March the party celebrated the return of Brexit Party MEPs such as Ann Widdecombe. These re-joiners share the crowd’s anger that Brexit is still not done. Not because of recycling but because the Conservative Party has created a border in the Irish Sea, splitting Northern Ireland off from the United Kingdom. Widdecombe, a minister under John Major, was in Derby to tell people to go forth and convert. She doesn’t like the gender extremists, naturally. But that wasn’t why she was there. “The sole reason that I decided to join the Reform Party,” she said, “was because it is the only party that will save the Union.”
Midway through Widdecombe’s speech an early-medieval historian next to me muttered about Magna Carta. He turned and explained that “freedom” was the reason the “West ruled over the East” for 2,000 years. He was there because his 14-year-old son was given a detention for calling a non-binary substitute teacher “sir”. But there was no sole reason the crowd came, least of all the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
The disparate motivations for people’s support for the party is somewhat explained by Reform UK’s position as a minor party. Once voters recognise that only two parties have a chance of governing within the British electoral system, third parties can attract an incoherent mix of concerns and gripes.
The same has happened with Brexit. For those at the rally, Brexit has become an amorphous, swollen symbol, a host for people’s anxieties. What was a legal renegotiation of our relationship with a supranational organisation is, for people like Fiona, a mindset. You can stretch and pull Brexit to make it mean whatever you want. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has co-opted the slogan “Take Back Control” to spruce up his plans for streamlined devolution. Throughout the Brexit battles, the Conservatives defined and redefined Brexit as their conception of it mutated. Reform UK, whose genealogy can be traced back to the Eurosceptic Anti-Federalist League of the 1990s, has taken this even further.
There’s a third aspect to the contradictions of Reform UK. You rarely see Tice and Farage, the party’s honorary president, in the same room. At first glance they are similar. Two public school boys well-versed in slating Brussels who went into financial services. Ukip under Farage shared Tice’s desire for tax cuts and deregulation.
But they are different politicians and different people. Farage presents a show on GB News, the scruffy channel which broadcasts the national anthem each morning at 6am. Tice is a presenter on TalkTV – its richer, slicker, slightly politer cousin, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK. Tice presents himself as someone who would grip the task of governing with a determination forged in the private sector. His mantra is to condemn government waste and weak leadership in Westminster. His penchant for populism is limited.
Farage is a crooked-toothed, country-gent-impersonating, pint-wielding renegade. Tice is a hair-gelled, tie-wearing, pearly-toothed salesman. He presents a sanitised facade intended to spare the blushes of Westminster hacks. Farage’s revelation was that he could ignite people’s resentment towards the EU by tapping into their anxieties about immigration. Tice also wants to see immigration fall but he justifies that position by saying that lower immigration would increase wages.
The two men represent different politics – which one encapsulates Reform UK?
Hardline beliefs will always be more common the further down a party hierarchy you go. But there’s a chance that Reform UK’s presentable leader conceals the party’s contradictions, a bright turquoise veneer that masks the murkier views of members such as Phillips. The same sleight of hand is happening when the party’s slogan – “Let’s make Britain Great” – becomes “Make Britain Great Again” in the speeches. What is implicit becomes explicit. The Trumpian nod becomes an embrace.
But as Brexit fades from British politics, Reform UK may struggle to convert voters to its cause. The Brexit Party’s singular conviction to leave the EU has been replaced by an incoherent mix of resentments. That incoherence prevents the party from defining itself. At the recent local elections – at which those candidates from the rally stood – the party won 6 seats while the residents’ associations secured 99.
Reform UK’s predecessors were built on a unifying animosity towards the EU and the idolised personality of Nigel Farage. The party under Richard Tice has neither.