When I meet Richard Tice, the leader of the Reform party, in St Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster, he is sporting an upside-down Union Jack lapel badge on an otherwise immaculate navy suit, looking like the quintessential Tory he hopes to displace. There was a time when the Tories were complacent about challengers on their right. When David Cameron became Tory leader, he dismissed complaints that he was not Conservative enough. Who else would his critics vote for? Would they really join the ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ of Ukip? In the end, Nigel Farage was an opponent supremely capable of stealing his voters and turning British politics upside down. Is Tice the next threat?
It doesn’t take long for him to start holding forth about the shenanigans at No. 10. ‘The whole cabal had no fear of this virus — at the same time as trying to terrify the nation and impose draconian restrictions,’ he says. As a staunch critic of lockdown measures, he is especially angry. ‘It totally vindicates those of us who feel that the collateral damage of lockdown will be far, far worse than the cure that lockdowns were supposed to provide.’
The main driver of Reform’s new sign-ups, says Tice, is public disgust over partygate. ‘We’re talking hundreds of new members in a week, owing to the complete fury with the behaviour of the Prime Minister and the people around him.’ And, he says, anger at the net-zero agenda which is estimated to cost more than £40 billion a year when it gets going in a few years’ time. In a return to the Brexit playbook, he wants a referendum on net-zero policy — which might sound odd, given that this is a government policy rather than a constitutional change. But Tice says net zero demands a conversation of its own.
‘We think this is a bigger issue for people’s daily lives than Brexit and, given the impact on people’s lives, they deserve a say on it,’ he says. ‘They haven’t yet had that say and the right way to have a proper national debate is what I like a lot: direct democracy, through a referendum.’ His argument is, in part, that the current net-zero target is ineffectual even on its own terms as it means importing what we’d otherwise be making. The plans, he says, are ‘net stupid — literally stupid, they will send our jobs and our money to China’. Yet Tice claims to be the only political leader putting his ‘money where [his] mouth is’ by driving a Tesla: ‘It’s the best piece of kit I’ve ever bought!’
While Farage cultivated a bloke-in-the-pub persona, Tice looks every inch the millionaire former property developer that he is. Educated at Uppingham, he’s the third generation of his family involved in property (‘If you cut me in half, real estate runs in the veins,’ he says). His grandfather designed the Mercure hotel in Manchester (in which Tice delivered his conference speech last year) and even tried to knock down the London Ritz in the 1950s.
For all his attacks on the ‘Con-Socialists’, Tice himself is a more conventional Tory figure than Farage, having left the party only three years ago after failing to be selected as its London mayoral candidate. He teamed up with Arron Banks during the Brexit referendum to create Leave.EU, the group behind some of the more controversial adverts which showed migrants flooding over a border. He then set up his own project, Leave Means Leave, before joining the Brexit party. Tice is what you might call a serial political entrepreneur.
He has already begun exploring slogans, logos and potential donors for his demands for a net-zero referendum. ‘Think back to the Leave Means Leave campaign when we started having big rallies starting in the north. I am looking to replicate that at the appropriate timing this year — it may well be in the run-up to the May elections.’ He anticipates a string of council defections ahead of May’s local elections (his party is contesting up to 1,000 council seats to secure an election broadcast) and talks about contesting every mainland seat at the next general election.
Does he have any hope? Since its inception a year ago, Reform has averaged around 3 to 4 per cent in the polls. Tice points to polling which puts his party on 15 per cent in constituencies such as Barnsley Central: ‘The north is where we poll the strongest — interestingly, it’s where we have actually done the least work in terms of being active on the ground.’ His party has struggled to pick up votes in the two recent southern by-elections that the Tories lost: just 4 per cent in North Shropshire and 1 per cent in Chesham and Amersham.
Tice has chosen tax cuts as the centrepiece of his pitch to seats like Barnsley, despite surveys suggesting the northern ‘Red Wall’ voters are more relaxed about a bigger state. As one pollster puts it to me: ‘Reform’s fundamental issue is that they keep being a bit libertarian when their target voters are very, very not libertarian.’ But Tice thinks his approach will still appeal in those Labour-leaning northern seats where Reform polls best. The main winners of tax cuts, he says, will be the people on the lowest earnings.
His biggest decision has been to focus most of his energies on lockdown restrictions and net zero, rather than Channel crossings — much to the relief of the Tories. Red Wall MPs privately fear the potency of such a message, with one telling me: ‘If Tice launches something on borders and we still haven’t sorted it, then we could have issues.’ Another backbencher I spoke to told me: ‘Immigration is the only Brexit-type issue that will allow them to cut through.’
Immigration is rated the number one political priority by people who voted Leave. Yet Tice, ever the liberal, seems rather reluctant to talk about this. Explaining the areas on which Reform will fight the next election, immigration is last on his list of four, after tax, energy and healthcare. Party insiders hope Reform’s heritage means it has already earned the trust of voters on immigration, allowing the party to broaden its focus.
Some contrast Tice’s rhetoric with Farage’s on their two respective talk shows: Farage regularly attacks Channel crossings on GB News while Tice uses his Talkradio appearances to critique lockdown restrictions. Both, though, share a similar analysis. ‘We’ve got to send the boats back,’ says Tice. ‘The only thing that works is what Australia did, which was to turn the boats back because suddenly you stop the business model. You’ve got all the lefties bleating and whingeing and whining, all the international organisations. Australia faced it, they dealt with it and guess what? Problem sorted.’
While Farage was more of a bomb-thrower, Tice intends to present himself as the rational and classic liberal alternative to a Tory party gone wrong. ‘You don’t win in politics by being on the fringe or in the shock-and-awe extreme position,’ he says. ‘I think you win over the medium term by just gradually building, gaining confidence. Anyway,’ he says with a smile, ‘Tory MPs are much more likely to defect to somewhere which is reasonable and approachable.’