Reform UK, the rebranded Brexit party, plans to focus less on culture war issues and instead try to attract disenchanted Conservatives with more weighty policy offerings based on the cost of living and healthcare, its leader has said.
Richard Tice, a property developer and Brexit campaigner who took over from Nigel Farage as leader in March, promised to field at least 600 candidates in the next general election, saying half had already been chosen.
In the 2019 election the then Brexit party stood down in hundreds of Tory-held seats, but under Tice it will very clearly target what he now calls “the party of high taxes and high regulation”.
Speaking to the Guardian before the party’s conference on Sunday, Tice said it would not be unfair even to argue he has more in common with Keir Starmer than Boris Johnson. “I don’t think it is, actually. I’ve never met Keir, but I think you can tell we both care about people. Boris only cares about Boris.”
The Reform UK conference, while low in profile, carries potentially significant political resonance for several reasons, not least in shaping the future of a party that won the 2019 European elections but then slipped into near obscurity.
In this year’s council elections, the party won two seats. “Knocking on doors, the majority of people hadn’t heard of us,” Tice admitted, but polls now put Reform UK at up to 5%.
The conference will hear policy announcements in areas including healthcare, tax and the environment, plus one that Tice promised would have “a big, unexpected wow factor”.
He said this would mark the end of a period in which his party has often gained attention by focusing on the culture wars and associated issues, including opposition to lockdown and a semi-alliance with Laurence Fox, the outspoken actor turned London mayoral candidate.
“Yes, we get irritated by what we call the woke stuff, and I think it does irritate millions of people,” Tice said. “But what affects people’s daily lives are the policies I’ve talked about, and the election will be fought on those things. We are deadly serious about this.”
Also significant is Reform UK’s resolute opposition to Johnson’s Conservatives, to the extent of holding its conference in Manchester on the same day that the Tory conference opens in the same city. “That was my idea, to really wind them up, which I think it has successfully done,” Tice said. “We’re starting to get abused by Conservatives, which is always a good sign.”
Another notable element of the post-Farage Reform UK is that while critical of Johnsonism, it mimics his pick-and-mix approach to policies from the left and right. Thus, while Tice would propose significant cuts to income and business taxes, these would be aimed only at lower-paid people and smaller firms. Any revenue gap, which Tice argues would be temporary, would be plugged not by spending cuts but by increased borrowing.
“Everybody’s got their knickers in a twist about the national debt,” he said. “There’s no reason to be so worried about it.”
Similarly, while Tice is critical of the government’s net-zero plans, he does not overtly deny the climate science and would like to see the government offer 100% loans for people to fit domestic solar panels.
While Tice is careful to not dismiss Farage, to whom he still regularly speaks, it is clear this is a changed approach from a leader now best known for making videos about refugees landing in Dover. “Correct,” Tice said when asked if it was a new era for the party. “This is Reform UK under my leadership, and these policies are driven by my focus.”