It’s how countries have responded [to the Covid pandemic], the lessons that have or not been learnt. I think relative to many countries we have had an absolute horror show, an absolute shocker . . .
What the government has failed to do consistently and even now, eight months later on – have we ever heard any Cabinet minister or the Prime Minister say ‘We actually got that wrong and this is the reason why and we have learnt from it’? No. You always got that government mantra – we are doing the right thing at the right time, based on the right science – when everybody could see that was a patent, utter load of garbage. It was untrue, it was dishonest and you had a supine, cowardly Labour Party that weren’t prepared to get into the detail and focus on the evidence – Richard Tice, leader of Reform UK, talking to Richard Ings at the party’s first conference.
IS Reform UK the last hope for democratic change in the United Kingdom? Faced with an out-of-control regime, starting fires it then can be seen to put out and planning further ram-raids on freedom and democracy, this was the question on many delegates’ minds in Manchester on Sunday. At the party’s first conference, the mood was one of earnest encouragement, the audience almost willing each speaker to say the magic words that might summon up a new, much-needed opposition.
Tales of success from Derby and Wales hinted at modest but achievable victories, capturing councils and taking on the Senedd. But what about the vision? Would deputy leader Dr David Bull’s presentation of his NHS voucher scheme – interrupted by suspected Tory sabotage in the form of a fire alarm – or leader Richard Tice’s zero per cent student loans over 45 rather than 30 years be what politically homeless participants had travelled from far and wide to hear?
There was fire in the bellies of certain speakers. Regular Good Morning Britain contributor Dominique Samuels tore into wokeism in education, and the outrageous treatment of students being told they have to be vaccinated against Covid to return to campuses. Cei Dewar’s barnstorming polemic against politicians who didn’t go ‘a single day without their salary’ as others lost their livelihoods, calling for ‘a new voice with new ideas to lead us in a totally new direction’ got roars of approval. From the platform Isabel Oakeshott, a warm-up act for the main attraction (as she said herself in a self-mocking way) and not as a Reform UK spokesman, tore into Boris Johnson, astonished by a ‘whole new level’ of lying and state cruelty that she’d never encountered in her long career as a political commentator: ‘I will never forgive them for any of this, and neither should you,’ she said to cheers. (She reiterated her condemnation in a short interview I managed to catch with her later on. You can watch it below).
When I talked to Tice after his keynote speech, he told me that he fully agreed with Oakeshott: ‘This is a government that will say one thing in the knowledge that it’s wrong and that they’re going to do something completely different a few days later.’
Having parked his tanks on the Conservative conference lawn, he was scathing in his condemnation of the party’s ‘horror show’ of a response to the pandemic: ‘Scientists disagree in the way economists disagree. As a leader what you do is listen to ideas and the evidence and make a judgement. They never did that. They just doggedly took one source of evidence. There was this idea that you had to diss anyone else who had any other idea, whether it was the good people from Oxford who came up with the Great Barrington Declaration or whether it was the success that Sweden had by adopting a completely different approach . . . and history will show that Sweden on their balanced approach will have one of the least bad ‘Covids’ of any Western nation. Their average deaths are in line with the European average; their excess deaths are very, very low, way below our levels. They haven’t had the economic damage, they haven’t had the collateral damage we’ve had . . . in terms of cancer deaths, heart-related deaths, other diseases and deaths. And we were talking about this collateral damage from the middle of last year, and we were dissed, we were smeared and we were shunned.’
He described the forcing through of Covid vaccinations on children, against the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, as ‘bullying’ and a complete reversal of what ministers had promised. He made it clear on the basis of key principles that families should be trusted to make the decision about their child. Yet whether his views – avowedly pro choice about vaccine, informed consent and greater honesty about scientific disagreement – were, inter alia, sufficient to satisfy the depth of concern about the state of politics that has allowed the mass vaccination of children with an unlicensed product, expressed to me by some of the delegates, only time will tell.
The refrain I heard most from attendees was ‘Is this it for democracy?’
After eighteen months of terrifying authoritarianism, arbitrary rule by fiat, and cruelty to the elderly, to children, to working families and to the millions living alone, with suspicions of crony capitalism as pharmaceutical companies cash in, there was a quiet despair about facing down this monster. ‘I’ve come to see if there is still a democratic answer to this,’ one open-minded man who’d travelled from Wolverhampton told me. The fear underlying this, it seemed, was that there might not be.
Whenever abolishing the House of Lords, or standing up for free speech, injecting or indoctrinating children, or the horror of vaccine passport segregation was mentioned, the audience erupted in loud applause. Big ticket issues that feel a long way from fiddling with corporation tax thresholds, another plank of Reform UK policy. In this light, the ambition of the delegates seemed at times to be exceeding that of the leadership, calmly talking bread and butter while the crowd howled for the guillotines.
The freedom-loving spirit of the people was certainly represented in the elegant Manchester hotel ballroom, and might be said to be captured in Reform UK’s slogan Our Freedom, Our Future. The question remains whether the party will find a way to live up to its own billing.
‘It’s just one example’ Isabel was saying as noise from passers by using the lifts curtailed the filming, ‘it doesn’t matter whether you agree with vaccines for children or you don’t. The fact is we are told one thing and something very different happens.’