Richard Tice is planning for a May general election. He still expects Rishi Sunak to wait until October, but he isn’t taking any chances: if the Prime Minister “surprises everyone and calls for a May one and we’re not ready, I look a prat!”
Two years ago the multi-millionaire property tycoon and leader of Reform UK, formerly known as the Brexit Party, told the New Statesman of his determination to field candidates in more than 600 seats at the next general election, saying “we’re not standing down for the Con-socialists again”. It’s an intention he’s repeated multiple times since – but the message, however clearly stated, didn’t seem to get through.
“I think most people in the media didn’t really believe us when we said we were going to stand everywhere except Northern Ireland,” he tells me, when we meet in a Westminster café. “People still kept thinking, until now, that we were going to do a deal with the Tories. And now people have realised that is absolutely not going to happen.”
Last month, the Conservatives suffered two epic by-election defeats, in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire. In both of the previously ultra-safe seats, Reform’s vote was higher than Labour’s majority. The conclusion for Tice was that Reform “ensured Tories lost” – something he clearly relishes.
Tice, 59, is relaxed, tanned and full of energy when we meet (he has just returned from a holiday in the Caribbean). The man once described as “one of the bad boys of Brexit”, who co-founded Leave.EU with Arron Banks and whose partner is political journalist Isabel Oakeshott, is eager to dispel any suggestion that his party is no longer a relevant force in politics.
The Brexit Party was co-founded in January 2019 by Nigel Farage, who had just left Ukip, with the aim of pushing the UK towards a harder exit with the EU; the party won the highest vote share in the May European Parliament elections, giving it 29 MEPs (including Tice). When Boris Johnson called a snap election at the end of the year, Farage announced that the party would not stand candidates in any of the seats held by the Conservatives, although both he and the Tories denied any kind of deal. The UK formally left the EU in January 2020, and a year later the Brexit Party rebranded itself as Reform, with Tice taking over as leader in March 2021.
Since then, the party has struggled to make much headway as an alternative party on the right of British politics. The local elections in May 2023 were a disappointment: Reform won an average of just 6 per cent of the vote in the areas where it stood and only six council seats. The party polls around 6-8 per cent in national surveys, around the same as the Green Party: not enough to make it a serious electoral force, but enough to make the Tories’ electoral prospects even more perilous. So is there really no prospect of a last-minute deal with the Conservatives?
“They could offer me five million quid and a peerage, and the answer is still no,” insists Tice, reminding me that he also favours abolition of the House of Lords. He himself is standing in Hartlepool, where he was a candidate in 2019. “Did you see a picture of a property I bought up there?” He digs out his phone and shows me a photo: a shop front on a major roundabout approaching the town centre, decorated in Reform’s bright sky blue with Tice’s name and the party’s policies – “Lower Taxes”, “Control Immigration”, “Cheaper Energy”, and the somewhat Trumpian “Let’s Make Britain Great” – painted all over it. “I haven’t mucked about.”
The risk of splitting the right-wing vote and helping Keir Starmer win an outright majority doesn’t seem to bother Tice. The opposite, in fact: he wants the Conservatives to lose, and to lose big.
“When we did voluntarily stand aside [in 2019], we did it on the basis that the Tories could do Brexit properly and run the country properly. And they’ve turned out to be a catastrophe… You can’t trust them. And I think the nation is sick of waffle and no action. The country’s never been in such a bad state… They need punishing, they need firing, and with our help they will be.”
So if pushing the Tories further to the right – on immigration, or net zero, or tax – isn’t the long-term goal, what is? The answer: electoral reform. While Tice won’t say what vote share he thinks Reform can win, he says a good result for the party would be “millions of votes and a situation that guarantees PR [proportional representation] within a couple of years”. He is scathing about the first-past-the-post system, which he says is undemocratic as the votes of people in safe seats are wasted. He also points out the system’s failure at recent general elections to ensure strong and stable governments, and notes that the only other European country to use it fully is Belarus.
Along with the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and other smaller parties, Reform is working with the campaign group Make Votes Matter and is signed up to the Good Systems Agreement, which calls for a new, proportional voting model. Interestingly, while the Labour Party itself has not signed up, a number of Labour MPs have. At the 2022 party conference delegates backed a motion in favour of proportional representation, and although Keir Starmer has ruled out supporting change, voting reform remains a live issue for Labour. Tice seems to think that with enough pressure from smaller parties across the political spectrum, a referendum on PR or a similar system in the next parliament is a distinct possibility. And of course, he and Farage have “a track record of winning referendums”.
Speaking of Farage, I ask what Tice made of the crowds Reform’s former leader drew at the Conservative Party Conference in October and the rumours he could yet return to lead the Conservatives. “It was hysterical!” Tice laughs, calling Farage “a spy in plain sight” among the Tories. “He was on an undercover mission, he was like James Bond! With his tuxedo and his vodka on the rocks, shaken not stirred, right in the middle of it.”
Tice was once not just a member but a long-term donor to the Conservative Party. Now he tells me, proudly and repeatedly, that some of his policies are to the left of Labour: 50 per cent public ownership of utilities (with the other half owned by UK pension funds), public ownership of critical industries such as steel production, and abolishing the House of Lords. He drives a Tesla, cycles around London (he is wearing bicycle cufflinks when we meet), and has installed solar panels and EV chargers at his industrial properties. He claims to be “saving more tonnes of CO2 than the whole of the House of Commons put together”.
Yet now that Brexit is losing its salience as an issue, fighting net zero has become one of Reform’s major causes. Tice calls net zero “the greatest act of financial self-harm this country has ever had imposed on it without any form of democratic mandate” and you can hear some of the themes of the pro-Brexit argument – shadowy elites making decisions about people’s lives with no accountability – echoed in the way he talks about it. Brexit populists in search of a new culture war cause need look no further.
Immigration is another key battleground. For all the attention Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman have given to the issue of “stopping the boats”, through the contentious Rwanda plan, Reform is not going to give them an easy ride. Tice calls the Rwanda idea, which is currently being considered by the Supreme Court, “just another massive waste of money”. “Rwanda will make no difference at all. It’s a classic Tory distractive dead cat on the table. It means nothing. It’s gone nowhere. Ridiculous.” Instead, he proposes simply picking up migrants who try to cross the channel illegally and sending them back to France. “That will stop the boats, stop them in a fortnight.”
You can imagine this sort of message on the Reform leaflets at the next election – or discussed at length on GB News, where Farage is a presenter (Tice joined the channel from TalkTV in September). Sunak’s recent moves have seen him veer right towards Reform’s policies: scrapping HS2’s northern leg, watering down net zero measures, ever tougher rhetoric on immigration and law and order. The risk is that the Conservatives alienate moderates while failing to offer enough to win over disillusioned right-wingers after 13 years of Tory rule. That’s Richard Tice’s hope, anyway.
“I genuinely think we are seeing the dying days of the last majority Conservative government in my lifetime.” He seems to be looking forward to it.
[See also: GB News isn’t a news channel – it’s Tory TV]
This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures