If Reform UK did not exist, would you invent it? And if you did, what exactly would you be inventing?
The Government faces a difficult year ahead. For all the very real challenges facing Keir Starmer if he wants to actually win a majority at the next election, a dearth of possible allies in a hypothetical hung parliament means that Rishi Sunak will need to heavily outperform current polling to retain office.
A credible challenge from the right could make that task that much harder, not just because it could cost the Conservatives marginal seats but also by emboldening the Prime Minister’s critics and limiting his space for trying to hold Boris Johnson’s broad but rackety electoral coalition together.
Reform UK would seem, at present, to be the most likely vehicle for such a challenge. But that is if, and only if, it were to be the platform for yet another Nigel Farage comeback.
It is difficult to overstate the man’s personal significance to the viability of any right-wing challenge to the Tories. It was his leadership that slowly built UKIP into a credible threat, a process that also enhanced his own profile to such an extent that when he quit it to found the Brexit Party it was they, and not UKIP, which won the European elections few months later.
Were Farage to decide instead to return at the head of some new organisation, it is therefore difficult to imagine a scenario where it would not once again hoover up the vote that Reform UK is pitching for, especially as the latter doesn’t enjoy the institutional history, councillor and activist base, or other resources that UKIP had accrued on the long march to Brexit.
That one man has such a crucial role is down in part to Farage’s undoubted skill as a communicator and campaigner, but also to his superior instincts. He knows where the dissident right’s potential vote is; when the media reported his intention to step up his campaigning back in November, his allies said the plan was “to take advantage of the Conservatives’ divisions over Brexit and migration”.
In contrast, the current Reform UK offer is wildly out of kilter with those voters: “an ill-judged mix of warmed-over Thatcherism and self-serving, Lib Dem-style constitutional reform talk”, as I summed it up last year.
Farage also understood much better the importance of the relationship with the Conservatives, even where necessarily adversarial, and how to work it (“playing Tory Euro-sceptics like an old maestro playing a Stradivarius”, as our editor once put it).
This was important for at least three reasons: an alliance with the Tories was the most plausible pathway to seats and power; most of the voters UKIP were trying to win were Tory voters; and it maximised his ability to influence this country’s only (discounting the suis generis circumstances of the Democratic Unionists) right-wing party of government.
Richard Tice, on the other hand, just this week ruled out any arrangements and then said this:
“I think the Tory party deserve to be smashed and destroyed given what they’ve done to the country, and the country deserves proportional representation.”
Why would you say this? The Conservative Democratic Organisation, whose potential utility Farage would probably grasp, is right there, an obvious conduit for exerting pressure on a struggling government in the run-up to a difficult election.
And why would you say there is “nothing at all” the Prime Minister could do to win you over? Make some demands! Give his strategists a list of things that might possibly stave off your challenge, even if you don’t say what that’s what you’re doing and even if you don’t mean it. The next election is going to be hard for them; they might do some of them!
Finally, why would you punctuate your killer quote with, of all things, electoral reform? Yes, it has always been part of the Faragist platform – the man himself was sorely underused by the self-consciously progressive pro-AV campaign back in 2011.
But it isn’t the thing you put pride of place in the shop window. It’s both divorced from voters’ actual priorities (there’s a cost of living crisis!) and too obviously self-serving. It just screams “I want to be in Parliament”. And you don’t need to be in Parliament to get things done (see: Brexit) and a canny leader (see: Farage) grasps this.
Finally, a sort of bare-minimum standard for the leader of a would-be Tory-slaying rightist party is that you should be able to tell that their quotes weren’t issued by, say, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.
But notwithstanding that, this sort of talk only really makes sense if you might actually smash (and at least partially usurp) the Conservatives in the near future. And Tice isn’t going to do that.
Whilst it has managed to post some impressive headline results in polling, that doesn’t mean it could translate that into a meaningful number of votes where they would count.
Even UKIP, in its Faragist pomp, struggled with this bit. Without the same star attraction or single lightning rod issue (Brexit having been done, to a given value of done), plus the aforementioned lack of activists to press the campaign on the ground, how could Reform UK hope to pull of a similar feat?
Another missing ingredient is time. The British electoral system is not impermeable to new parties, but barring freak political conditions or very geographically-concentrated support (or both, if you’re the SNP), breaking through takes a long run-up.
UKIP, which came second in 120 seats at the 2015 election, could plausibly have done it had the referendum not occurred. But getting to the cusp of becoming an established minor party, along the lines of the Liberal Democrats, took decades of work. Tice, even if he does have nine thousand new members, doesn’t have decades to work with.
Which means Reform UK is probably best understood, more or less, as the political equivalent of a holding company. It will matter, perhaps, if Farage decides to reactivate it. And not if he doesn’t. Perhaps he should just go full Pim Fortuyn and name the party after himself.