Alas, poor Nigel!

What is Reform without Nigel Farage?

Portcullis Sketch

What if they held a Nigel Farage press conference, and no Farage came? On Wednesday in a London hotel, the Reform Party conducted this experiment. It would be a lie to say it went well.

To be fair, we hadn’t been promised Farage, only “guests”. But the press had piled along in the belief that the man himself would be there, fresh from the celebrity jungle. It was only when we arrived that we learned he hadn’t shown up. 

In his place, we got Richard Tice, who describes himself as the party leader. Reform’s, ahem, unusual structure makes that an interesting claim. Companies House lists one person “with significant control” of Reform UK Party Ltd, and it’s Farage. He can remove Tice any time he wants. So Reform is a Farage show. To hold events without him isn’t so much Hamlet without the Prince as Macbeth without the Scots. 

Still, Tice did his best. “The country wants to punish the Tories for breaking Britain,” he began. “The country wasn’t broken in 2015,” he added later. Sadly he never explained what the catastrophic post-2015 event was that had brought ruin on the country. Readers may at this point wish to note that at the last election, Reform was called The Brexit Party. 

Could that have been it? Not at all! “Brexit offered so much promise,” Tice explained. “And still does, with the right leadership.” It turns out that true Brexit, like real communism, has never been tried. 

Rishi Sunak had failed, Tice told us, and Keir Starmer would be not much better, or just as bad, or worse. Labour, he said, was offering “Starmergeddon”: a “catastrophic cocktail of economic incompetence and cultural pillage”. He never explained the second of these, except to remark that there are things “you’re not allowed to talk about”. 

Perhaps GCHQ will be able to decode all this for us. Or perhaps we don’t need them. The Reform platform is essentially cutting taxes and ending immigration. There’s only one of these topics that might upset a dinner party, and it’s not fuel duty. 

That’s not all they believe in, of course. In the absence of Farage, the “guest” turned out to be Ben Habib, the party’s candidate for the forthcoming Wellingborough by-election. He is particularly animated by the Irish Sea border. Why, he asked, was it right to send a task force to defend sovereignty of the Falklands, but not of Northern Ireland? We had given up, he said, “without a single shot being fired”. 

Perhaps this was the thing you can’t say in polite society. It’s certainly rare to hear someone complaining that there hasn’t been enough violence in Northern Ireland. Habib, under questioning, explained that he wasn’t actually suggesting the problem of the Irish border would be solved if only the army would just have the courage to shoot someone. Thus started, and ended, 2024’s “Troops In” campaign. 

Still, like the event he was hosting, he lacks a certain something

Tice doesn’t make these sorts of mistakes. He’s tall, with catalogue model good looks and a relaxed manner. It’s not hard to imagine him selling cryptocurrencies or vitamin supplements. Still, like the event he was hosting, he lacks a certain something. 

And whatever the secret ingredient is that Tice hasn’t got, Farage has in spades. Plenty of people find him repellent, but he has a star quality that other politicians would kill for.

Which makes it all the stranger that he is keeping his distance from the party that he very much controls. He’s barely mentioned on the Reform website. It is a one-man party without the man. 

Even Tice seemed baffled. He freely conceded that he didn’t know Farage’s plans, and seemed a little let down that he hadn’t shown up. “A good poker player doesn’t show their hand too early,” he said. “He’s working it all through.” 

Is Farage playing political poker, and if so, what is he holding out for? It seems highly unlikely Reform can win any seats in Parliament. All they can do is take votes from the Conservatives. Perhaps that’s Farage’s game: seeing what the Tories are willing to offer him to call off the dogs. 

“We’re not doing any deals,” Tice insisted, but it’s not his decision. If I were Sunak, I’d be reaching out to see if Farage would accept a peerage.

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