Richard Tice is tall and lean, has a hint of Imran Khan around the eyes, and the ladies on reception in the office building where we meet seem to like him. Were Jilly Cooper to write a political novel then he would be its hero rather than anti-hero. Tice was, after all, the clean-cut one in the ‘Bad Boys of Brexit’, a band whose line up was completed by Arron Banks, Andy Wigmore and Nigel Farage.
Tice is the chairman of the Farage-led Brexit party, a title he is finding irksome this afternoon as he would much rather by now be chairman of Reform UK, the new identity he and Farage have applied to the Electoral Commission (El Com) for. They applied more than six weeks ago and have heard nothing back, even though El Com told them they could expect a decision by now.
‘We are a well-known and significant political force and we’re asking for a name change. We’ve started using it as a draft and it’s already got some recognition. It doesn’t seem that complicated. It makes you wonder why they haven’t made a decision. But we’ve had zero dialogue,’ he complains.
Tice, who is 56, made his money primarily in property and was a long-time Tory member before teaming up with Farage. He says the Brexit party is ‘considering its options’ when it comes to El Com, which appears to imply a threat of legal action.
The reason for his impatience soon becomes clear: he and Farage have big plans to contest next May’s scheduled local government and devolved assembly elections and have identified Reform UK as their favoured ‘forward-looking’ brand, given the likelihood that the battles over Brexit will be in the electorate’s rear-view mirror.
When I ask him to rank Scotland, Wales and London in order of priority, he insists: ‘They are all important.’ But it is clear which looms largest in his own mind: ‘London is in a terrible state and this mayor has done terrible damage,’ he tells me. ‘He’s very good at selfies but he has been disastrous for London as a capital city. The centre is dying on its feet and we need to change that and get him booted out.’
So is he throwing his own hat into the ring? ‘Lots of people have been urging me to stand. I’ve got a 30-year track record in business, I’ve made money for shareholders, I’ve run a multinational business. I know how to get things done,’ he declares.
‘The London Mayor has a huge budget and incredible power, but the city is in a critical state. It would break my heart to see it go like Paris has over the past 25 years,’ he adds, before launching into a detailed analysis of the ‘bust’ transport system and how to rescue it.
When I remind him of the perceived weaknesses of the Tory mayoral candidate, former youth worker Shaun Bailey, including his policy of mandatory drugs tests for office workers and supporting police officers ‘taking a knee’ for BLM, Tice does not directly put the boot in. But he does continue to parade his own business experience, concluding: ‘I think I could shake things up very quickly.’
Given that Tice tells me he will stand in the parallel Greater London Assembly elections, our working assumption should be that he will be the party’s mayoral candidate too, a venture that Tice acknowledges would be greatly assisted by the Reform UK name change going ahead.
When I ask him to set out the priorities of the new party, he tells me: ‘Reform UK is going to put forward reforming ideas for a whole range of things from the way that tax systems run, to the way the overall economy has been run, the way the civil service works, important issues like the House of Lords, our voting system and the BBC.’
‘You know, we can’t tax our way out of this crisis. We need to grow our way out and that means putting a foot down flat on the accelerator. It means cutting taxes and cutting bad regulation and cutting the mountain of wasteful government spending that drives us all mad and cumulatively adds up to tens of billions a year.’
‘Out of the ball-park £900 billion of government spending each year, I’m absolutely clear that without touching any frontline services whatsoever you could cut £50 billion out of that.’
Such talk is all very reminiscent of the Michael Howard era Conservatives, who wheeled in the business trouble-shooter David James to identify public sector fat that could be cut. I ask Tice to explain his own approach.
‘What you need is a bunch of great people to come in and essentially turn from poacher to gamekeeper. Successful private sector people need to come in and help us run departments and procurement processes and stop the ludicrous waste that goes on through a combination of incompetence, lack of common sense and lack of experience,’ he says.
When I ask if he would characterise himself as Thatcherite, he does not demur, saying: ‘It’s about rolling your sleeves up and getting stuck in. Hard work. Incentivising and promoting the workers and the strivers and not, bluntly, the shirkers and the skivers.’
I tell him: ‘Nobody says that anymore.’ He shoots back: ‘Well, you heard it from me. I mean helping the self-employed, the small businesspeople who take huge risks. These are the folks who’ve been most shafted in this crisis.’
On Covid, he praises the Government for having ‘taken a punt’ on purchasing large quantities of vaccines before they came to fruition and for the Nightingale Hospitals project, which he said benefited from the Army and private sector project managers who had been resisted by senior managers in the NHS.
But he is ultra-scornful of the handling of the test and trace system, branding it ‘a catastrophically, monstrously wasteful scandal’ and mocks the ‘massive contract’ given to Serco that he says contained almost no performance metrics or penalty clauses. ‘Look at the trading update statements from them – they are making money hand over fist,’ he adds.
I ask him how Nigel is. He says ‘great’ and lists the successes of his leader throughout 2020, chiefly over highlighting the illegal Channel crossings.
This leads him to declare: ‘You know, earlier in the year it was far from clear that there was a gap. But the Conservative party has moved to a different place. I now describe them as Con-socialists… They’ve done the classic Tory thing which is to talk a good game. Points-based immigration system, for example – it all sounds good till you look at the detail.’
‘The salary floor they are talking about seems to be slipping lower and lower. The threshold needs to be a lot higher so you get better wage growth. People talk about inflation, but you know inflation for three or four years of 3 or 4 per cent would be incredibly powerful for this economy.’
On Brexit his analysis has much in common with that of the Tory ERG: it’s been right to try for a deal, and so far Boris seems to have held the line on core principles. But if there is weakening on fishing, the level playing field, state aid or the governance of any agreement it will be disastrous: ‘You can’t become a low tax, high growth economy if you stay handcuffed to EU laws. It’s a bit like being in a brand-new speed boat but you’re still attached to the lumbering container ship. You’ve got to cut the anchor and you can accelerate away.’
It is easy to see Tice doing rather well in London next year, especially with business-minded people. I wonder, I say, how he would reply to an old Tory chum who rang up and told him: ‘Well done on the Brexit party, but you’ve had your fun. All the things you stand for can be fought for inside the Conservatives. If you carry on outside you risk taking a quarter of our vote and putting Keir Starmer into Downing Street.’
‘Very simple,’ he declares. ‘I believe in choice and the choice put before the electorate should be put there by people who would actually deliver. I don’t believe there is the body of people who think as I do within the Conservatives. Any who do don’t seem to get near the levers of power or if they do they become part of a nannying, centrist blob. I’m not for being bought off.’
Where does he see Reform UK five years from now – could it really have scores of MPs? ‘There’s one sure thing,’ he tells me, ‘if you don’t try then you’ve got no chance.’