IN LATE October, the Brexit Party put a name on its long-mooted rebranding: Reform UK. Beyond Nigel Farage’s favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, the media have ignored its politics. Journalists have tended to write it off as vacuous or a search for relevance after Brexit.
I spoke to Richard Tice, the party’s chairman, who said that ‘people should draw huge comfort from the fact that nobody is more focused on Brexit than Nigel and I . . . If there is any backsliding on Brexit, rest assured, everybody will hear from us big, loud, and clear’. Yet Tice sees urgency and opportunity for a new party. ‘We’re well capable of multi-tasking, and the truth is that a huge gap has opened up.’
What is that gap? The party’s opening announcement focused on opposition to lockdown, to which Farage added a ‘need for very radical reform’ of ‘the whole system of government . . . Brexit gives us self-governance – we now need to have good self-governance.’
Tice told me that official responses to Covid have revealed that ‘something is not quite right’ with governance in general. Tice wants Reform UK to stand out as the party that brings data to policy on Covid. Moreover, the ‘hiding’, the ‘covering up’, the smearing of critics, are ‘a bit like Brexit all over again’. Tice doesn’t spare Her Majesty’s Opposition from blame, given its ‘sheep-like’ following of the government.
Tice told me a lot about the problems with current policy on Covid, and spoke eruditely, with the ethos (and bias) of a successful businessman. I pressed him on what he wants to reform. At one point, he spoke of a ‘long list’ of targets. He started with the logistics of the vaccine, the economics of recovery from Covid, and fiscal policy.
He talked about cutting taxes on lower incomes, and regulations on business. He criticised the Conservative Party’s tax-and-spend policies (under its three most recent prime ministers). Separately, Farage criticised prospective rises in capital gains tax.
This sounds like old-fashioned fiscal conservatism. The Daily Telegraph paraphrased Reform UK as an ‘anti-lockdown, low tax, pro-growth political party’. Tice seems to be leading that message. On the other hand, he told me he wants to use state aid to promote critical British industries, such as alternative energy and defence products. He would also protect them by requiring that government acquisitions must be made in Britain (something that the Christmas Eve agreement with the EU makes illegal).
Apart from health policy and fiscal policy, Reform UK will reform institutions too. Tice criticises quangos in general for their self-justificatory regulations and budgets. He targets Public Health England for its mismanagement of health risks and data. When pushed, Tice admits the NHS as a whole needs reform, given its inefficiencies. He illustrated these inefficiencies in two ways: the NHS rules that prescription drugs should not be re-prescribed, even if unopened; and the NHS keeps reaching contracts that fail to punish suppliers for non-performance.
Tice prescribes political appointments to the civil service in order to impose external learning. I suggested that the civil service could restore its traditions of non-partisanship and functional specialisation, but he sees the civil service as ‘well beyond’ internal reform.
Independently, Tice targets the BBC, on the grounds of waste, specifically the £100million spent on a diversity programme. On the other hand, Tice expects the BBC to adapt, rather than give more ammunition to the parties that are most committed to its reform.
Tice didn’t mention law enforcement until late in his interview with me, but was strong on it. ‘Law and order is a big issue for us . . . We need much clearer policing and higher quality leadership across the police force, starting in the Home Office, to reform the way in which policing is delivered.’
Tice did not mention the education sector except as part of Reform UK’s ‘real plans’ to capture the ‘youth vote’. Young people are ‘utterly ripped off’ by, for instance, being charged pre-lockdown rates for higher education and halls of residence. Moreover, ‘they’re going to be paying for the next couple of generations the mountain of debt that this incompetent government has saddled the nation with’. And, he predicts, their job market will be smaller.
Tice is targeting Tory voters too: ‘Historically, they say, “Where do I go? I’m homeless”.’ Farage told his favourite newspaper that ‘as UKIP and the Brexit Party we always took more Labour votes than people realised. But in this current set of circumstances there are millions of Conservative voters who are shaking their heads and saying to themselves: “This is not a conservative party”.’
Tice wants to reform the voting system. He says he prefers to start the debate than pre-empt a prescription, but clearly wants at least some proportional representation to break the ‘two-and-a-half party monopoly’ at Westminster. He prefers the Scottish and Welsh systems (most representatives are elected first-past-the-post, one per constituency, as for all members of the British Parliament; the rest are elected by proportion of party votes).
Changing the first-past-the-post system differentiates Reform UK from the Conservative Party. So does devolution. Tice foresees Scotland separating from Britain unless given more powers, although his support for devolution is not particular to Scotland, it is philosophical and practical. Thus, he supports an English Parliament.
He wants to reform the House of Lords, although is reluctant to prescribe one alternative. He would rather have a ‘proper debate’ about it. Tice is critical of Boris Johnson’s elevation of his brother to the House of Lords, so presumably would oppose political appointments.
Reform UK has a competitor in Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party, which put ‘reform’ in its subtitle (since deleted). Surely they would split the vote?
Tice praises Fox for ‘incredible bravery and guts’ for ‘taking on what I call the woke wallies, the diversity brigade . . . and we’re with him on it.’
Tice welcomes ‘more voices focusing on particular issues’ because they ‘encourage voters to hear that there are different ideas out there, different options’. He sounds like a business coach. ‘The more competitors there are in a space, the better everybody gets.’ Upon hearing that Fox described his party as more cultural, Tice jumped to welcome the ‘complementarity’ of their ‘specialisms’ and immediately re-specified Reform UK’s focus on economic recovery.
When I asked whether the two parties could co-operate, such as by avoiding competition in the same constituency, Tice admitted that they should have that discussion. He kept returning to the point that the Brexit Party has learned competencies the hard way, and has capacity to compete almost everywhere. This implies that the complementarities are not just functional (e.g. economics versus culture) but material (e.g. Reclaim focuses on the police and crime commissioners).
The Brexit Party had more than 100,000 registered supporters before its change of name, of whom forty had served as Members of the European Parliament (including Tice). Within seven days of confirming the change to Reform UK, Farage and Tice claimed tens of thousands of positive respondents, of whom nearly 2,000 were willing to stand as candidates. By the eleventh day, they claimed 3,000 candidates. They still have months to find candidates for the balance of 5,000 local council seats, nearly 200 seats in the Scottish and Welsh legislatures, and 40 police and crime commissioners.
‘Months’ seems generous compared with the month between the Brexit Party’s campaign launch and the European election in May 2019, which the Brexit Party dominated. However, in the general election of December 2019 the Brexit Party scored only 2 per cent nationally.
In local elections, small parties expect to wax, and they expect to wane in national elections. As Tice said a few times, political success doesn’t need to mean electoral success. It can mean to ‘shape and influence the debate’.
However, new parties need electoral success before they can reform anything directly. Unlike Tice’s previous campaigns, Reform UK cannot focus on a referendum. In any case, Tice is ‘not a fan of referenda’ so long as government represents the majority, rather than itself.
Clearly, Reform UK must make an impact at the local elections or be derided as a post-Brexit irrelevance. Tice seems relaxed about the prejudices. ‘We’ve got a lot of experience of media bias . . . I think they’ve learnt to their cost not to underestimate us. They shirked and sneered at us during the European elections, and bluntly we gave them what for. And when people libel and defame us, we will respond accordingly as certain politicians learnt to their cost.’ (Presumably that latter statement refers to Alyn Smith, a SNP MEP, who, after Tice threatened to sue, apologised for describing the Brexit Party as a ‘shell company that’s a money laundering front.’)
I pushed Tice on his strategies for electoral success. At first, he repeated his statements about the Brexit Party’s legacy experience and infrastructure. Later, he differentiated the party’s ability ‘to bluntly create controversy in order to create news: you’ve got to be newsworthy’.
In other words: Reform UK has already worked out a strategy and a manifesto that make the mainstream parties look stereotypically grey.