Who's driving the bus? (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

December 2, 2023   12 mins

Every other week, Reform party leader Richard Tice and his “shadow cabinet” meet in central London to go through party business. The party’s deputy leaders David Bull and Ben Habib are usually there, as well as Ann Widdecombe, who comes in from Devon. The party chairman, Paul Oakden, sometimes calls in on Zoom from the organisation’s headquarters which — uniquely — are not in London, but in Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire. Together they discuss the party’s policies and strategy for the months ahead, in preparation for a general election they now believe is “40% likely” to happen on 2 May 2024.

The one person who does not attend these meetings, however, is the man who is not only president of the party, but its founder, spiritual leader, chief electoral asset and, crucially, owner. That man, of course, is Nigel Farage, who is currently 10,000 miles away eating blended cow anus in the jungles of Queensland.

Farage, it is fair to say, is no ordinary politician. Here is a man who tried to enter parliament seven times, failed every time and still became one of the most important political figures in post-war British history. This is what you might call the Farage paradox and it runs as strongly today as ever. As he sweats it out in the I’m A Celebrity jungle, Farage is being held aloft as a prospective future Tory leader, while also being president of a party apparently committed to the Tory party’s destruction. 

Welcome to the strange world of Reform UK.

Just as Farage is no ordinary politician, Reform UK is no ordinary political party. In many ways, it is less a political party than a company, with shareholders and an ever-growing number of customers. Tice may be the leader of the party, but he is ultimately answerable to those shareholders — and the majority are owned by, you guessed it, Farage himself. Originally, the idea behind this set-up was simple. At Ukip, Farage had grown increasingly tired of the party’s internal bureaucratic struggles. When he set up the Brexit Party in March 2019, he was determined to avoid a repetition of this, and so created a company he could control, rather than a party he had to manage. This allowed Farage to focus all his efforts on the campaign for Brexit. 

Most of those in Reform UK whom I spoke to believe this was the right decision at the time, but also that it is coming to the end of its sell-by date. “You couldn’t have had a genuine insurgency if we’d been democratic at the start,” Habib, the party’s deputy, told me. “We needed to move quickly.” It is certainly true to say that the Brexit Party was born in extraordinary conditions. In March 2019, when it was created, it looked as though Brexit might not happen. Theresa May’s exit deal was being blocked by parliament and momentum was growing for a second referendum.

But within two months of its founding, Farage’s new party won the European Parliamentary elections, pushing the Tories into fifth place. Then, the day after the vote, May resigned as prime minister. Suddenly, Farage was standing on the brink of something extraordinary — the very real prospect of not only defeating the Conservative Party, but destroying it. Within six months, however, Boris Johnson had not only been elected Tory leader but had secured a harder-edged Brexit deal and won over his most Eurosceptic backbenchers. Farage had a choice: reluctantly back Johnson’s Brexit deal or persist in the battle to destroy the Conservative Party? On 11 November, less than a month before Johnson’s “Take Back Control” election, Farage stood down 317 Brexit Party candidates to give the Conservative Party a clear run at power. For the first time in his career, Farage blinked.

With Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in January 2020 and the delivery of Brexit, what was the need for a Brexit Party? The challenge remains to this day. Farage, I am told, had long believed “Reform” was the perfect name for a political party, and so within a year — which included a legal battle with a think tank by the same name — Reform UK was born, with a new mission to overhaul the electoral system and oppose lockdowns. Farage stepped aside in March 2021 to allow Tice to take over, with the new party barely registering in the polls as Johnson crushed all before him. It looked like it was game over.

In the two years since, though, Reform UK has steadily risen in popularity, first as a result of Partygate and Johnson’s removal, and then when Liz Truss was removed a month into her time in office. Today, Reform UK regularly polls between 7 and 11%. On the day it hit 8% earlier this year, Farage rang to congratulate Tice. “Mark this day,” he told his successor. “It took Ukip 18 years to get to 8%, you’ve done it in 21 months.” Over the past few weeks there have been six different polls putting the party at between 10 and 11%. Tice believes by Christmas the party will have hit 12%. Put bluntly, these are figures the Tory party simply cannot afford.

As a result, the Tories are again fighting a war on two fronts — holding back the onslaught from Labour, while suddenly being attacked from the rear by Faragista forces many had assumed were no longer a threat. What is more, some in the party now believe Farage might not be the Tories’ enemy, but its saviour. Perhaps it is time to bring him home.

How seriously should we take Reform’s impact on British politics? From my conversations with senior figures in Reform, it is clear that the party’s primary goal is to deny the Tories victory in 2024 at all costs. For Tice, Tory defeat is necessary to create the conditions for electoral reform, which would then allow Reform UK and his form of Faragism into parliament. For some in the party, denying the Tories victory would force them to become “true” conservatives again, perhaps under the leadership of Suella Braverman. But for others, including Habib, the goal is to permanently destroy the Conservative parliamentary party as an electoral force. “It does not deserve to survive,” he told me. “You can’t reward failure with incumbency, the party needs to be obliterated.”

Here, though, lies the question at the heart of Reform: what is its ultimate purpose? This question is neatly encapsulated in the figure of Farage himself: the founder and majority shareholder who is not planning to stand for the party at the election but is flirting with the idea of joining the Tories afterwards. From his perch in the I’m A Celebrity jungle, Farage declared: “There’s a lot of speculation that after [the Tories] lose the next election maybe Nigel becomes leader of the Tory party one day. So, there’s a lot of chatter about it. Whether it’s going to happen, I’ve no idea. The important thing is to say this: ‘Never say never.’”

What won’t he wade through? (Credit: ITV/I’m a Celebrity)

So, is Reform UK a disruptive start-up that wants to eventually be bought out, its ideas taken on by the Conservatives? Or is it a disrupter whose ultimate aim is to grow so big it can launch a hostile takeover?

It is certainly set up like a start-up. While the exact details of who owns what percentages of Reform UK remain veiled in secrecy, according to one inside figure who knows the breakdown it is simple enough. In total there are 15 shares, of which Farage owns eight, Tice five, Oakden one and the party secretary, Mehrtash a’Zami, one. According to Companies House, this makes Farage — officially — a person with “significant control” over the company, which they define as having “the right, directly or indirectly, to appoint or remove a majority of the board of directors”.

Farage’s control has become a source of some internal unrest. Since he stepped down as leader last year, he has come under pressure to give up some of his shares as part of wider moves to democratise the organisation. Members of the party currently pay £25 to join and will, in future, get to vote in leadership elections, should there be any. So far, though, Farage has refused to give up his shares. “We each wanted a share but Nigel refused,” said one party insider. And for good reason, from Farage’s point of view. As things stand, Farage owns a company whose stock is rising without having to put any of his own money on the line. It’s a win-win.

It is Tice, not Farage, who has kept Reform UK afloat since Brexit, bankrolling the party to the tune of £1 million of his own money. The party is also receiving donations from businessmen such as the former Conservative Party donor Jeremy Hosking and the multimillionaire owner of the property company Panther Securities, Andrew Perloff. According to some inside Reform UK, Tice’s loan acts as a kind of insurance against Farage’s power. If — for whatever reason — Tice and Farage were to fall out, and Farage returned in some sort of reconquista, the party would still owe Tice the money. How much this would ever bind Farage in practice is open to question. He could, presumably, raise such a sum in donations — or, if forced, simply declare the company insolvent and move on.

In practice, the party is majority-owned by Farage but run by a kind of oligarchy of Eurosceptics under the congenial leadership of Tice the CEO, who has built up a large equity stake in the business himself. And this current structure is not sustainable. “We do have to democratise,” Widdecombe said. “There’s no doubt about that, but we can’t be navel-gazing now, before the election. We are structured as a company. After the election we should change that to become a party.” For now, though, Farage is like some kind of hands-off chairman, promoting the party’s interests — or perhaps his own — on GB News and I’m A Celebrity, ultimately able to remove Tice but with no reason to do so as the party keeps growing. 

So far, the partnership between Tice and Farage has worked well. The pair speak regularly and share the same political instincts: hard-line, anti-woke Eurosceptic conservatism. Both were members of the Conservative Party who now loathe it. While Farage is in the Jungle, Tice has stood in for him on his show on GB News. There is no tension between the pair that I detected in my conversations.

Yet it is possible to detect a faint grumbling about Farage’s power within the wider party. There are many, for example, who believe it was a fundamental error to give up “The Brexit Party” for “Reform UK”. The Brexit Party was a successful, established brand with national name recognition. Reform UK has had to start from scratch, and with a name that could just as easily be a progressive think tank as a conservative political party. “If we had our time again, would we change the name?” reflected Tice. “Perhaps not.” To partially unwind this decision, the logo that appears on people’s voting cards will now read: “Reform UK: The Brexit Party.”

The tension over the name is not just a question of branding but also of political judgement. In essence, by standing down his candidates in 2019 and changing the party’s name, Farage was accepting the Conservative argument that Brexit had been delivered. For some of the hardliners in the party leadership, this was a fundamental strategic mistake. Brexit, to these figures, has not only been half enacted because Northern Ireland remains tied to EU law, but also badly enacted with the trade deal that replaced the previous relationship. By standing down in those 317 seats, the party dipped its hands in the Brexit blood, leaving it unable to make political capital out of people’s frustrations with how things have worked out since. “We said we were going to change politics for good,” said Ben Habib, “but we embedded the old political system.”

Tice is known to be sympathetic to this argument but insists Farage’s decision was necessary. “We had to stand down to make sure Brexit was done legally,” he told me, “even if it has not been done properly.” But given the sentiment in the party, Tice has promised his leading generals that he will not replicate Farage’s decision at the next election and has committed to standing a Reform UK candidate in every seat in Britain — though not, ironically, in Northern Ireland.

Essentially, Farage is criticised for being too soft — and now he’s being too soft on the Conservative Party. He was not sufficiently Eurosceptic, unionist or strategic. Ultimately, he was lazy and missed his chance. Now, instead of leading an insurgent political force opposed to open borders and Net Zero, Farage is messing around in Australia and flirting with the idea of becoming a Tory prime minister.

So are the Tories worried? Among senior Tory strategists, there is palpable relief that they are facing Reform UK, not a still-angry, Farage-led Brexit Party. “They have two big problems,” one senior Tory explained to me. “They don’t have Farage and they don’t have an obvious mission.” And yet there remains a real concern among the Tory hierarchy that a combination of immigration and Net Zero could light a fire under Reform, turbo-charging its support. Tice, for what it’s worth, now believes the next election will be a straightforward “immigration election”, the perfect terrain for his party to outperform expectations.

One obvious problem for Reform UK is that, according to the pollsters and party strategists I have spoken with over the past few weeks, the party’s support base largely comes from disaffected former Conservative voters. It is, as one Conservative strategist put it to me, “a hardcore Conservative Party”. In many respects, Tice perfectly reflects the party that exists today: he is a wealthy, no-nonsense Tesla-driving businessman who applied to be the Tories’ London mayoral candidate as recently as 2018 and hates what his old party has become. He is for low taxes, a small state, stopping the boats, cutting immigration; and against wokeism, gender ideology and Net Zero.

This, indeed, is what Reform UK supporters believe in — and what Ukip voters believed in. As such, it is no surprise that the party saw its first big surge in membership when Jeremy Hunt was brought in as chancellor at the height of the Truss crisis last year. It then saw a fresh batch of members join up when Sunak became Prime Minister. The return of Cameron to the government then saw a fresh surge, with 1,200 new members signing up in four days, according to Tice. But is it popular beyond the fringes of the Conservative Party?

‘No, you’re in charge!’ (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

There is no doubt its rise in the polls is impressive. Much of this can be attributed to the collapse in support for the Tories. In April 2020, at the height of the first lockdown, the Conservative Party hit its highest poll rating in decades: 53%. Today, under Sunak, his party has seen its support halve to 25% at best — or as low as 19%, according to some pollsters. The problem for Tice is that, because his base is made up of disaffected hardliner conservatives, they are even more opposed to a Labour government than floating centrist voters and so — leading Tories believe — are most susceptible to eventually backing the Conservatives in a general election. Many of the electoral strategists I spoke to believed Reform UK will, in the end, be lucky to get more than 3% in the general election.

The first danger for Reform UK over the next 12 months, therefore, is that they will be squeezed as Labour and the Tories battle it out for the swing voters who hold the key to power. For while an increase in support for Reform UK could be damaging for the Conservatives, it is not existential in the way Labour’s current 20-point lead threatens to be. To put it simply, every voter who switches from Tory to Labour is twice as damaging to Sunak’s chances of holding onto power as a Conservative voter who backs Reform UK. The second danger is that Farage loses interest. While his time in the jungle has certainly not damaged his public reputation — so far at least — it has not yet enhanced it in any meaningful sense. From the beginning there was a sense that his motivation was a little too obvious, a little too cynical. “I was a bit gutted,” he admitted when he wasn’t chosen to take part in the bushtucker challenges. “You see, if you do the challenges it’s 25% of the air time. I’m looking at reaching a whole new audience.”

The comment was authentic Farage. From the moment he broke into the national consciousness following his election to the European Parliament in 1999, he has been focused on the battle for “air time”. He was, in a sense, Britain’s first social media politician, going viral with his extraordinary attack on Tony Blair in Strasbourg as far back as 2005. When it comes to the great electoral battles of 2024, he may well prefer the glamour of being Donald Trump’s wingman. The final obvious challenge for Reform UK is that it is both too optimistic and too reliant on the prospect of electoral reform. Tice is convinced that it is now only a matter of time before some form of proportional representation is brought in by a Labour-led government. But unless the Labour Party falls short of a majority, it seems implausible that Keir Starmer will legislate to make it harder for him to win a majority.

These are the principal challenges facing Reform UK, none of which means they should be discounted as a long-term presence in British politics. In 1997, both Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party and Alan Sked’s Ukip were swept away in the tsunami of support for Blair’s New Labour and its promise to lead Britain back into the centre of European affairs. Seven years later, Ukip secured more than two and a half million votes in the European elections.

The abject failure of the British state to ever change anything is the key opportunity for Reform. As of today, there is little sign that either of the main political parties has any idea how to significantly reduce net migration, “stop the boats”, or improve living standards. For so long as this is the case, the conditions will exist for a party offering alternative solutions. Add to this the increasing political salience of Net Zero across all European countries and it is foolhardy to rule out a genuinely popular anti-establishment insurgency emerging. As one Tory strategist put it to me: “If the institutions keep failing, people will ask what is the fucking point in the politicians in charge?”

These are the political challenges and opportunities for Reform UK. But underneath it lies a structural challenge: is it a political movement to deny a certain brand of Toryism power or a vehicle for a man who is still flirting with the idea of taking over the Tory party itself? For Tice, Widdecombe and others, this overstates the problem — we in the media are just falling for Farage’s games. “He will not rejoin the Conservative Party,” Widdecombe told me. “I cannot see what he possibly has to gain from it. It’s cloud cuckoo land.”

And yet, what if Faragism took over the Tory Party without Farage? It is not at all clear from my discussions with insiders what difference there is between Reform UK and a Suella Braverman-led Conservative Party. “If the Conservative Party do lose the next election, there’s a chance we could have a proper Conservative Party and there be a merging of ideas that takes place,” Widdecombe told me. “The problem with Suella is that I agree with everything she says but nothing happens.”

In the end, as the ultimate controller of the party, much rests on Farage himself. In his heart, does he dream of being a true Tory prime minister, the prince over the water who returns home in triumph? Or does he just love the drama — the airtime? Ultimately, if there is ever a clash between Farage’s ambition and that of his party, it is Farage who will have the final say. “Nigel is a terrific maverick,” Habib told me. “Ultimately we cannot know what he will decide in the future.” And that is the point. It’s still Nigel’s game we’re playing.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.