It’s not often that a fringe party steals the news agenda, but funny things happen when Nigel Farage is (or is at least rumoured to be) involved.
In a packed (if rather soulless conference room) in a glitzy hotel in London Victoria, the tension was palpable. The big announcement of the press conference was to be Reform UK’s candidate in the upcoming Wellingborough by-election, triggered by the suspension from parliament of the Tory MP Peter Bone. Might Bone, who lost the Conservative whip in October, defect to Reform (founded by Farage in 2019 as the Brexit Party) and stand as their candidate? Or might Farage himself make an eighth attempt to become an MP? The Reform party leader Richard Tice was due to give a speech, but would there be a shock appearance from Farage fresh from the Australian jungle?
There would not. Ben Habib, Reform’s deputy leader and a former Brexit Party MEP, was unveiled as the Wellingborough by-election candidate with more than a little sense of anti-climax. The verdict on GB News (where Farage, Tice and Habib are all regular faces) was one of disappointment (“long-winded” was the assessment). Clearly they had been expecting a news line about Farage – such as the announcement of a formal role running Reform’s election campaign.
“He is still assessing that,” Tice teased after the Habib announcement in reference to Farage, perhaps realising what his audience had come for. Sporting a bright turquoise tie (the party’s colour) and a Union Jack lapel badge, with “Let’s make Britain great” and “Let’s save Britain” adorning the stage and podium, Tice seemed buoyant and full of energy, almost mischievous after the bait-and-switch he’d played with the assembled journalists. “A good poker player doesn’t show their hand too early, and Nigel is a master at political timing.”
But this anti-climax aside, the press conference was still revealing. Wellingborough is a key test case for Reform (rebranded “Reform: the Brexit Party” as of November 2023). By-elections are often opportunities for smaller parties to make their mark as voters protest against the complacency of the two main ones (just ask the Lib Dems), but it’s more than that. The specific circumstances of this race – a safe Tory seat at a moment when the Conservatives’ poll ratings are dismal – favour a party whose primary purpose appears to be splitting the right-wing vote.
Wellingborough’s history makes it look like a good bet for Reform: Ukip came second in the constituency in 2015 with 19.6 per cent of the vote, and 63 per cent of residents voted Leave in 2016. If Reform is targeting areas with high Brexit sentiment where protest parties have traditionally polled highly, it could hardly have asked for a better place. It’s worth remembering that while Bone won what would normally be considered an unassailable majority of 18,540 in 2019, the then-named Brexit Party did not stand in the seat at that election.
Perhaps Conservative Party HQ was hoping that Reform would stand aside again, if not in this contest then in Tory-held seats at the general election. But Tice has reiterated multiple times, including when he spoke to me in November, that this will not be the case. As far as he is concerned, there is no deal to be done. Today, speaking before the Habib announcement, he emphasised again that Reform planned to stand candidates in every seat in England, Scotland and Wales, and would not be swayed by the “special pleading” of Tories worried about letting Labour in.
“The country quite rightly wants to punish the Tories for breaking Britain,” he declared. “The Tories are terrified… You’ve all broken Britain, you’re all responsible.” This echoes his assertion to me that the Conservatives “need punishing, they need firing, and with our help they will be”.
Tice had more than a few harsh words for Labour too, warning of “Starmergeddon” (more high taxes, government waste and closer ties to the “sclerotic” EU) and accusing Labour of supporting mass immigration.
But the policy platform he unveiled is unlikely to worry Keir Starmer too much. Rather, it’s one that more than a few Conservatives on the right of the party could probably get behind: cutting taxes (almost doubling the personal income tax allowance from £12,571 to £20,000 and slashing fuel duty), eliminating government waste, seizing the opportunities of Brexit (“If you’re going to do something like Brexit, for God’s sake do it properly”), freezing immigration through a “one in, one out” policy, and abandoning the “job-destroying” net zero pledge.
Whether any of this is practical or achievable isn’t the point. Such policies are designed to appeal to frustrated Leavers who are disgruntled with the Conservatives but don’t trust Labour. Indeed, Tice branded the Tories and Labour “two sides of the same socialist coin”. You could see the work under way to turn immigration and net zero into polarising, dividing issues that reshape electoral coalitions in the same way the Brexit vote did.
It remains to be seen how effective this will be. Wellingborough is a litmus test for whether the party’s poll ratings (around 10 per cent) are matched by actual votes. Habib’s chances don’t look good. (A cynic might suggest that, had Reform been more confident of its Wellingborough odds, Farage would have taken the risk of running himself.) But when I spoke to Tice last year, he made it clear that the main aim wasn’t necessarily representation in the House of Commons, which is extremely hard for insurgent parties to achieve. Rather, the longer-term goal was electoral reform: switching from first past the post to a system of proportional representation more favourable to smaller parties. A sizable Reform vote share to maintain national influence, alongside a Labour victory, was to his mind a route to achieving that.
This is a defining year for Reform UK. If it can’t make an impact now, with the Tories polling at historic lows, it risks fading into irrelevance. But Tice must avoid the temptation to overhype his party. Today’s press conference did not deliver the sparkle necessary for Reform UK to cut through. If it wants to do that, it probably needs Farage back sooner rather than later.
[See also: Labour must prepare for a grim inheritance]