‘Make Britain great’: right-wing upstarts threaten UK Tories

‘Make Britain great’: right-wing upstarts threaten UK Tories

LONDON (AFP): A fringe right-wing political party founded by Eurosceptic populist Nigel Farage is once again posing a headache for Britain’s ruling Conservatives before this year’s UK general election.

Reform UK — formerly called the Brexit Party and whose leader admires ex-US president Donald Trump — rails against immigration, net zero energy policies and “nanny state” government regulations.

With slogans including “Let’s make Britain great” and “Let’s save Britain”, Reform is trying to tap into disgruntlement among Britons struggling from the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades.

It is currently polling at around 10 percent in national surveys before a vote that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said will be held some time in 2024.

Conservative lawmakers fear the group will help prevent an embattled Sunak from securing a fifth-consecutive term for his party by splitting the right-wing vote in key constituencies.

With the main centre-left opposition Labour party currently enjoying double-digit leads over the Tories in most opinion polls, political scientists say those concerns are justified.

Tice added to them on Wednesday by ruling out any pacts with the Conservatives, despite alleging that some Tories have pleaded with him not to stand Reform candidates in certain areas.

“The truth is the Tories are terrified,” Tice, 59, told reporters, adding he was “absolutely categoric” there would be no electoral deals with Conservatives “under any circumstances”.

He said Reform will put up candidates in every single seat in Scotland, England, and Wales, unlike at the last election in 2019 when the Brexit Party stood down in some areas to help Boris Johnson, who won a landslide.

“I’m optimistic that the country quite rightly wants to punish the Tories for breaking Britain,” added Tice, standing next to a UK flag during the press conference at a hotel near parliament.

The English businessman-turned politician accused the Conservatives of presiding over high taxes, “wasteful” government spending, anaemic economic growth and of failing to take advantage of leaving the European Union.

“Of course, the biggest betrayal of all by this government is on immigration,” said Tice, pledging a “one-in, one-out” policy to reduce record levels of net migration to Britain.

He also promised to remove “daft” EU regulations, lift the salary threshold at which income tax payments kick in and scrap Britain’s commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Tice did not spare Labour leader Keir Starmer, saying his party would bring “a catastrophic cocktail of economic incompetence and cultural pillage” that would be disastrous for Britain.

But it is the Tories — in power since 2010 — who stand to lose most from disaffected voters turning towards Reform, according to political experts.

Under Britain’s first past the post electoral system, where there are no prizes for candidates who finish second, Reform is not expected to win any seats in parliament.

But a significant share of votes, particularly in the so-called “Red Wall” seats of working-class voters in northern England, would kill off any hopes the Conservatives have of being re-elected.

“In the position they’re in, getting squeezed still further can make the difference between a defeat and a thrashing,” Anand Menon, politics professor at King’s College London, told AFP.

The Conservatives have lurched rightwards in recent decades under pressure from more extreme upstarts, firstly the UK Independence Party under Farage’s leadership, then Brexit/Reform which he co-founded in 2018.

By pandering to potential Reform voters, the Tories risk alienating more socially liberal voters in the south of England who may opt for the Liberal Democrats instead.

“This is the nightmare they face. It is very, very difficult for them to hold on to one group while keeping the other,” Menon said of the Conservatives.

Chris Hopkins, politics director at the polling firm Savanta, says there is “little” electoral evidence to suggest that Reform’s current polling numbers will translate into actual votes at the election.

That could change if Farage returns to frontline politics with Reform. Tice said he was “very confident” that Farage would play some sort of role.

“He’s as close to ‘celebrity’ as politicians get,” Hopkins told AFP.

“He’s also an experienced campaigner, and I think he helps professionalise and legitimise them as a party.”