Picture credit: Carl Court/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Can Reform perform?

A Farage-less Reform campaign began with more of a splutter than a bang

With the Conservative Party currently about as popular as Harold Shipman, Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a snap election in time for the start of the California school year should have been an open goal for the dissident right.

And yet, unlike in continental Europe, populists in Britain seem woefully ill-prepared to capitalise on widespread dissatisfaction with the political establishment. Less than 24 hours after Sunak’s rain-soaked announcement, Reform UK launched its own general election campaign to little acclaim. 

Naturally, the biggest story was Nigel Farage’s long-awaited return to frontline politics, which spectacularly failed to materialise. Rather than laying down his plough to rescue the res publica in its hour of need, Britain’s own Cincinnatus will instead jet across the Atlantic to assist Donald Trump in his re-election campaign. In a letter posted to Twitter, Farage emphasised that “the contest in the United States of America on November 5th has huge global significance.” Read between the lines, and there’s a nagging sense that Farage understands that decades of decline has rendered the UK a bit-part player in global affairs. If even our patriotic populists won’t stand and fight, Britain is in dire straits indeed.

According to some reports, “Mr Brexit” was all set for an explosive return to retail politics before shelving the idea at the last minute. For all of his public protestation, I can’t help but feel that Nigel’s decision to forgo the ballot box owes more to South Thanet than South Carolina. His failure to win the north Kent seat — now represented by “Bionic MP” Craig Mackinlay — at the peak of UKIP’s power in 2015 remains a sore spot. After seven failed attempts to get into Parliament, that election may well have been his last, best hope. Despite his willingness to wolf down kangaroo testicles in the Australian jungle earlier this year, it seems that the risk of a bruised ego is too much to stomach for Farage. Who can blame him? When the alternative is six weeks of traipsing door-to-door in faded seaside towns, the sunlit uplands and generous sinecures of Washington are difficult to resist. 

Instead, it’s real estate mogul Richard Tice who will be the face of Reform’s campaign. Presumably taking his inspiration from 2011’s Moneyball, Tice knows that he can’t replace Farage but has attempted to create him in the aggregate. The result is an awkward tribute act, which knows all of the lyrics but can’t quite seem to capture the soul of the original act. Tice himself has clearly been studying Farage’s mannerisms, but his imitation falls flat. Ann Widdecombe and Ben Habib were hardly capable of capturing that signature magic. Add amateurish audiovisual cock-ups to the mix — Widdecombe’s mic cut out mid-way through her speech — and the whole thing suffers from a distinct whiff of Dad’s Army. 

Reform now regularly polls at 10 per cent and enjoys a measure of financial security

In fairness to Tice, his leadership hasn’t been without success. Reform now regularly polls at 10 per cent and enjoys a measure of financial security. Earlier messaging about lockdown, Net Zero, and “Consocialism” has been de-emphasised in favour of slick, punchy lines on mass migration, reminding voters that a population equivalent to the size of Birmingham arrived in Britain in the last year alone.

Likewise, his decision to stand in Boston and Skegness, despite earlier overtures towards Hartlepool, demonstrates a degree of political intelligence. Rather than chasing “Red Wall” voters in the North of England, many of whom will stay at home having been burned by Tory failure to deliver on the promises of 2019, Tice recognises that Reform’s best chance of success lies in the “UKIP Coast”. Running along England’s windswept east, from Kent in the south to Yorkshire in the north, this is where peak UKIP was at its strongest. Appealing to disgruntled Tories here with promises of lower taxes and lower migration could well bear fruit.

Yet as Yorkshire’s brave Tom Jones has previously argued in this esteemed forum, Reform suffers from a number of structural weaknesses regardless of its leadership. Grassroots campaigning infrastructure is anaemic or non-existent, while talent acquisition has tended to focus on attracting eccentric castaways from the other major parties. In recent months, Reform leadership has also proven shockingly poor at batting away Hope Not Hate’s attempts to discredit the party’s candidates by trawling through their social media history. 

The result is a mismatch between national media coverage and local electoral success. In Tamworth, in Wellingborough, and in Blackpool South, the party’s by-election performances can best be described as mediocre. In Rochdale, Reform candidate Simon Danczuk came in sixth, despite ample opportunity to raise the alarm about mass migration in an election dominated by sectarian campaigning. At May’s local elections, Reform stood candidates in just 14 per cent of wards, winning fewer seats overall than George Galloway’s controversial Workers’ Party. By way of comparison, at the 2013 local elections, UKIP managed to field candidates in 73 per cent of wards, picking up more than 140 seats. 

As for the prospect of outright Reform victories, I wouldn’t count on it

Whether or not Tice can stir up enough enthusiasm amongst right-wing malcontents to have a real impact at the ballot box on July 4th remains to be seen. In marginal seats with large white working-class populations, expect to see Reform deny re-election to a handful of Tory incumbents. Likewise, expect to see a conspicuous absence of attacks on Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party — for Reform, this election must be about presenting itself as a credible alternative to the apparently discredited Tories. As for the prospect of outright Reform victories, I wouldn’t count on it.

Whatever happens, the British right is in for a rough ride. A decade and a half of embarrassing psychodrama is finally coming home to roost for the Conservatives, who will suffer a pasting regardless of Reform’s performance. Mutterings about Dominic Cummings’ “Start-Up Party” are cold comfort to those who recognise that another decade of Labour government will mean more economic stagnation, more institutional rot, and more mass migration. 

One way or another, it’s time to go over the top and face the guns, under a blue banner of one shade or another. I hope to see at least some of you on the other side. England expects that every man will do his duty.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover