The terms of the Covid debate have changed markedly since Nigel Farage decided to re-enter the political arena after Boris Johnson's second English lockdown. Even with multiple vaccines coming on stream, we can still not rule out a third lockdown — but we can be pretty darned sure there won’t be a fourth. It’s not the end of the beginning, but the beginning of the end.
So Farage and his chief lieutenant Richard Tice can no longer depend on anti-lockdown fervour alone to give them a flying start, despite the rebellious mood of Tory MPs. Could they, therefore, decide that discretion is the better part of valour and call the whole thing off, especially if there is no Brexit deal and Britain ends up going for WTO rules as they have called for?
Well, in short, no. The pair and their closest supporters are still raring to go, doing whatever the 21st-century equivalent is of waiting by the phone to hear back from the Electoral Commission about whether their preferred rebrand as Reform UK is a goer. One source close to the senior reaches of the Brexit Party, the current mothballed brand, describes the mood as 'expectant, baited optimism'.
Even if the remaining chapters of the Covid story are dominated by a relatively smooth journey back to normality — and even if the purest possible Brexit emerges (which it probably won’t) — the new venture will go ahead.
This is because of two key factors. The first concerns the sheer array of touchstone issues still up for grabs for a new right-of-centre offer. The second factor guaranteeing the new venture will go ahead is Tice himself.
Even after lockdowns and Brexit have passed, there still remains: Rishi Sunak's tax rises; the ever more intrusive and expensive carbon reduction policies of the PM, including a war on motorists and a looming withdrawal of domestic gas supply; the actuality of the immigration system (as opposed to the Tories talking a good game); a feeling that this is a crony administration that favours its friends over ordinary folk; ministerial reticence in the face of radical Islam; wider culture war issues; and a general sense of scratchiness towards a Tory party that is heading towards the start of its twelfth successive year in power next spring.
While most of Britain is no longer convinced by the notion of Reaganite self-financing, 'dynamic' tax cuts, Farage and Tice know that a big chunk of Conservative support very much is still convinced. They will hate hearing Sunak say that such an approach cannot plug the chasm in public finances.
And one can expect Reform UK, if that is indeed to be the new brand name, to attempt to present its right-wing ideas as forming a modern, forward-looking agenda to give it the widest possible appeal. When a successful businessman like Tice makes the case for smarter, smaller government and constitutional reform (that includes scrapping the House of Lords) it will be difficult for anyone to dismiss this as another iteration of what Farage once termed the 'dandruff and bicycle clips' feel of early Ukip. So expect Brexit Party level branding and some significant new star signings to be part of the package too.
Then there is the question of Tice himself. Unlike almost any other previous favoured senior lieutenant — a long cast list upon which my own name also features — he has managed to avoid falling out with Farage. A big part of the reason for this is that, along with his possession of a notably even temperament, he has always acknowledged that Nigel is the senior man who ultimately calls the shots.
But if Farage decides that another stint of full-time political leadership is not for him after all, especially given potential lucrative alternative avenues in the media, friends of Tice say he has got the taste for politics now and will be ready to step up and take it forward himself.
And that should really worry the Tories. Because while Farage’s charisma was crucial in attracting the support of a sizable wedge of the Ukip and Brexit Party electorate, it was accompanied by a 'Marmite' quality that put off many others. There is no hint of this with Tice, a debonair smoothy who performs well on television and projects a personality that is likely to prove highly attractive to middle-class shire Tories feeling the onset of mid-term blues.
Ultimately the pool of voters who would at least give a Tice outfit a look is potentially even wider than the one that would back Farage at the drop of a hat.
It is not quite right to say that Richard Tice is the first person to forge a political duumvirate with Nigel Farage, but he is certainly the first to master the art of the sidekick, growing in prominence and authority without treading on those important toes.