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Threat to Sunak from right

If polls and by-elections are to be trusted, the Tories face a big challenge from the far right - and before that the possible loss of former vice-chair Lee Anderson, writes Eddie Ford

Though it might not have made headline news, Reform UK held its party conference in Doncaster at the weekend. As most readers will know, it is the legal continuation of the Brexit Party, whose main shareholder is its former leader and now honorary president, Nigel Farage. Indeed, perhaps significantly, since November 2023 the organisation has stylised itself as ‘Reform UK: the Brexit Party’, presumably in anticipation of the forthcoming general election - giving itself a more recognisable name.

Of course, the conference, or more accurately a rally - there was no programme, agenda or timetable of events - was held on the back of its recent by-election results, which can only be classified as good for a non-mainstream party: 10% in Kingswood and then 13% in Wellingborough.


After Wellingborough, Reform candidate Ben Habib declared that “the world is our oyster” - a rather optimistic assessment, given that Reform is unlikely to break the two-party system under ‘first past the post’. But the Tories are right to be worried by the rise of Reform, no doubt hoping that it turns out to be a mere flash in the pan, as some estimate that the party could split the Tory base and result in the loss of an additional 30 seats - making a resounding election defeat look even more probable.

In fact, many Tories want to emulate Reform UK and get some ‘real Conservatism’, thinking this might possibly hold out a dim chance of winning the upcoming general election.

Anyhow, Reform’s property multi-millionaire leader and once a big donor to the Tories, Richard Tice, told his Doncaster conference that the party would “save” Britain from a “sinking Sunak” and “Starmageddon”. He went on to say that when Reform was launched “they laughed at me”, but “they’re not laughing now”.

Then Tice unveiled his pitch to traditional Tory voters, disillusioned by the state of the economy (especially with the tax burden at its highest level since the end of World War II). He claimed that a Reform UK government - if you can imagine such a thing - would almost double the basic income tax threshold and reduce corporation tax. According to him, this would mean an extra seven million people would pay no income tax at all, in a move that he claimed would reverse the current economic gloom that has “left everyone feeling poorer.”

However, after all the rather boring economic stuff, the applause got a lot more enthusiastic when the Reform leader moved on the real ‘red meat’ stuff - like transgender rights, the BBC and vaccines. Tice announced that the party would “ban” transgender ideology in primary and secondary schools and sack teachers who keep it on the curriculum, earning him rapturous applause. Ditto with critical race theory, which would, supposedly, be quite easy to do: “The secretary of state for education writes to every headteacher and says this stops this weekend … and, if it doesn’t stop, you’re fired”. Simple as that!

Tice declared that the party would also abolish the existing BBC licensing fee, ensure the UK leaves the World Health Organisation, rip up the Equalities Act and - generating more raucous applause - launch an inquiry into “vaccines harms”, which “the establishment doesn’t want to talk about”. For Tice, there was a “serious problem” with thousands more people dying than expected during the pandemic and the excess deaths could be attributed to the side-effects of the Covid jab (as inevitably a few will be).

We also discovered that Reform would freeze all “non-essential” immigration with a “one in, one out” quota system, on the basis that the British public never voted for mass immigration. In fact, Tice wanted government ministers to declare immigration a “security threat”, as many of the people coming to the country illegally “do not have good intent”. Telling you everything about the mood of the conference, Tice’s promise not to “allow Sharia law in the United Kingdom”, as well as Ann Widdecombe’s speech for “the drawbridge” to be pulled up for non-skilled migrants, because “Rwanda ain’t working”, were both greeted with standing ovations. Indeed, in the absence of Farage - who was in the US with Liz Truss warning that the west’s “Judeo-Christian culture” is under threat - Widdecombe was the darling of conference.

It almost goes without saying that Reform, like the Tory Party, is not remotely democratic. Its 115,000 paying registered supporters have absolutely no voting power or democratic outlet to influence party policy. The conference (or rally) was a fine example of stage-managed control-freakery, with no debates or differences of opinion allowed. By all accounts, Nigel Farage retains a high level of control over decision-making, including hand-picking candidates himself.


A certain annoyance was expressed at the conference by some Reform officials at Lee Anderson for “stealing our thunder” with his media-grabbing comments about the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, as it was supposed to be “our day, not his”. This seemed a bit ungrateful, given how much publicity Anderson has generated for the party, and the intense level of media speculation about the possibility of him defecting to Reform. There is history between the two, needless to say, Reform having courted Anderson before - The Sunday Times reported in November last year that he had been offered “a lot of money” to join.

Anderson himself is a peculiar character. He is a former member of the National Union of Mineworkers who campaigned for Michael Foot in the 1983 general election and cites Arthur Scargill, Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn as “important influences” in his early political beliefs - before going over to the extreme right of the Tories. Only a short time ago he was actually a deputy chair!

Of course, Anderson - MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire since 2019 - has now had the whip withdrawn for his inflammatory comments about Khan, saying that “Islamists” have “got control of Khan and they’ve got control of London and they’ve got control of Starmer as well”.

Now, maybe Lee Anderson is a simple-minded fool who just says what comes out of his mouth, oblivious to the ramifications. Or he is calculating, cynical politician who did a Braverman and deliberately got himself suspended in order to put himself in a position where he can confront the Tory leadership - either select me as a Tory candidate in the forthcoming general election or I will stand instead for Reform.

Whatever the case, he puts himself in a win-win situation - able to present himself as a consistent and ‘principled’ politician, as opposed to the woke crowd. He told GB News he would not apologise to Khan “while I have a breath in my body” and, when pressed over whether he would join Reform or not, Anderson did not directly reply - rather, said he had “been on a political journey”, hinting that he was still ‘travelling’.

There are rumours about him holding private talks with Richard Tice, who now goes on about how Anderson “speaks for millions of people who are appalled by what is happening to our country”. Well, he certainly appears to speak for a large number of grassroots Tory members. A poll of 521 Conservative members by Opinium found that 58% say Islam poses “a threat” to this country - double the proportion of the overall population who believe the same.1 It also found that 52% believe the increasingly prominent conspiracy theory that parts of European cities are under sharia law and are “no-go” areas for non-Muslims. Fertile ground for someone like Anderson,

We should certainly not discount the possibility of at least one Reform MP before the next parliament.


Meanwhile, there are real-life consequences from the sort of rhetoric we hear from the likes of Lee Anderson and Suella Braverman. When the latter was home secretary, she agitated for the Met Police to ban the biggest demonstration of the 21st century in London - some 800,000 or more. Then, when it was not banned, the message from her and the media was that we have to defend the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the holy of holies for the establishment and its remembrance of imperialist wars - even though the idea that it was ever under threat was obviously absurd.

What Braverman actually mobilised, of course, was a rightwing mob who had been getting tanked up in various nearby pubs and ended up attacking the police around the Cenotaph, making a huge din amidst the silence that was meant to commemorate the millions of war dead.

Stirring things up about how “the Islamists” have “got control of London”, or are setting up “no-go” areas for non-Muslims, will mean the fire-bombing of mosques, attacks on the streets - perpetrators finding justification in Anderson’s off-beam chauvinist statements.

  1. theguardian.com/politics/2024/feb/28/more-than-half-of-tory-members-in-poll-say-islam-a-threat-to-british-way-of-life.↩︎