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Britain’s tiny Tea Party casts a big shadow

In a featureless function suite in Derby, less than 30 miles from the geographic centre of England, about 800 political activists gathered at the weekend for what they see as an uprising from the heart of the nation.

Reform UK is the successor to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. Shorn of its primary political goal, it has become a vehicle, on the right, for general grievance at the “broken” state of politics. From its evocation of a country betrayed by its leaders to its Trumpist “Make Britain Great” slogan, it is essentially Britain’s Tea Party, the voice of its angriest voters. And while it is likely to remain a small party, it casts a disproportionate shadow over British politics.

At its spring rally, party leaders melded small-state conservatism, slashing immigration numbers and defence of traditional values, with populist rhetoric and the paranoid, anti-establishment theories increasingly popular on the fringes of the right. Some attendees pushed vaccine conspiracies and bleated about the World Economic Forum. Almost all wanted an end to net zero policies. The only stall outside the hall was for the denialist CAR26, whose director argues that the climate emergency is a “scam”.

Speeches evinced a mix of betrayal and victimhood. Paul Oakden, Reform UK’s chief executive, worried about the “globalist totalitarian” approach of both major parties. Even when conforming to traditionalist Toryism on issues like gender ideology and critical race theory, it could turn toxic. “I’m white and I don’t feel ashamed,” emoted one leading figure.

But for the largely white and older audience, the central unifying theme was that the country had lost its way. The party’s leader, Richard Tice, lamented a nation where people now feel poorer, less safe and can’t get a doctor’s appointment.

Tice preaches Reaganism (though one policy is the part-nationalisation of energy utilities). Yet despite his clear Tory leanings, he is adamant that Rishi Sunak must be defeated and does not care if Reform UK’s votes help Labour. “You cannot reward failure with more power, more incumbency.”

Why does a party polling between 6 and 8 per cent matter? The UK electoral system is heavily loaded against minor parties and will ensure Reform UK remains insignificant as a Westminster force. (One reason for Tice’s equanimity about a Tory defeat is that he sees a hung parliament as the best hope of securing the electoral reform his party needs to gain traction).

The answer is that minor parties can exert significant sway if they threaten to siphon votes from the major parties. The Brexit referendum sprang from the Conservatives’ fear of the UK Independence party. The Tories have seen the cost to Labour of its vote being split between various progressive parties and take great efforts not to be outflanked on the right. The government’s obsession with small boat immigration is a direct response to the spotlight thrown on the issue by Reform UK and Farage, its honorary president. Tories fear even a small Reform UK vote could cost them seats.

Reform UK also enjoys significant media support. The Tory press, notably The Daily Telegraph, routinely articulates its views, and its leaders are hosts and regulars on Britain’s two rightwing TV networks, GB News and TalkTV.

The party’s analysis of Tory failings — taxes too high, Covid-19 lockdowns too oppressive, immigration policies too weak, Brexit betrayed and insufficient prosecution of the culture war — appeals to the Conservative right’s critique of Sunak and the outlook of party members who elected Liz Truss.

This is Reform UK’s significance. It depicts one possible future for the Tories and its old-time religion is well received in many Tory circles and promoted by media allies.

This has wider consequences. Historically, the Conservative party played a key role as the UK’s pressure valve against hard-right demagogues. It has done this by acknowledging — even pandering to — the prejudices that underpin such movements but watering down the response to levels tolerated by mainstream opinion and a broad-church party. This is often still too reactionary for progressives. But since Brexit uncorked the bottle, the Tories are being pushed further by fear of the populists.

If the Conservatives lose the next election — and perhaps even if they don’t — the battle for its future direction will be heavily influenced by those who are attracted by Reform UK’s agenda of tax cuts, resistance to net zero, curbing immigration, leaving the European Convention of Human Rights and its attacks on “woke” ideology.

This is not to say the Tories will simply become Reform UK. Many would still resist such a drift. But the demographics of its new voters and the instinct of many members are pulling it along a parallel track. Prominent figures such as Suella Braverman, the home secretary, and Jacob Rees-Mogg already embrace much of the agenda. Next month, a number of leading Tories will be speaking at a National Conservatism conference, a movement promoting the cause of the traditional religious right.

That is why what happened in Derby matters. Reform UK’s populism will exert an outsized gravitational pull on Conservatives, especially if they lose power. None of this is a reason to sustain a failed government in office but it is a reminder that removing it is not the end of the story.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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