When Reform UK leader Richard Tice teased a “major press conference” earlier this week the handful of (deputy) political editors dispatched to a central London venue speculated about which Conservative MP would be unveiled as a defector.
Scott Benton, at war with his local party? Andrew Bridgen? After all, in UKIP’s pomp a “major press conference” saw a Tory switch, and just last month the Conservatives reported Reform to the Speaker of the Commons over claims that it has offered MPs £400,000 to defect.
In the event, the rather underwhelming announcement was that a group of former Brexit Party MEPs, including 75-year-old ex-minister Anne Widdecombe, were joining the party – a party, as even the Daily Mail noted, “many assumed they were already part of”.
Widdecombe immediately announced she would not be running for Parliament again, announced she was “here to save the union” and failed to trouble the evening bulletins. But it was the reaction of what remains of UKIP which shed some light on how things aren’t necessarily happy on the UK’s hard-right.
In an email to supporters, with the subject ‘Crusty Wieners’, UKIP’s chairman Ben Walker lashed out at Reform and Tice, describing the announcement as “a reheated, best of British, Sausage & Mash [sic] microwave meal; lumpy mash, dried up wieners and a bitter salty aftertaste”.
“We must NEVER forget, that Reform UK are the party that stood candidates down for a Tory deal that never came, lapped up COVID restrictions and mandatory vaccinations and threw the kitchen sink at Andrew Bridgen MP for speaking out against the health risks from the vaccinations. They are certainly not a party of Free-Speech,” Walker went on (note: there were never any mandatory vaccinations).
“Despite the endless 6-point plans, ego-massaging and lack of answers on policy, we learned nothing new about the floppy-haired, London-centric grifter company that continues to fragment our side of the political fence by design.”
And it’s that fragmentation which irks UKIP. Walker adds: “We have tried endlessly in the interests of the UK to speak to Mr Tice and have been repeatedly ignored, except for an email from Mr Tice’s journo partner, Isabel Oakeshott who believed we were all racists for wanting to protect our borders and control immigration.”
UKIP have been doing the running in attempting to unite the UK’s fractured far-right. Last year it appointed as deputy leader – like Reform, UKIP doesn’t do internal democracy – Rebecca Jane with a mandate to bring together what she refers to as “centre-right” or “splinter parties”, i.e. all those to the right of the Tories. (Jane is a colourful character – a GB News regular, former Big Brother contestant, peddler of “holistic healing” and enthusiastic exchanger of fruity DMs with noted sports stars).
In an email to supporters in July, Jane wrote: “Let’s start by saying, that to align us all is an incredibly large task and will take a considerable amount of time. However, I am absolutely, increasingly aware that we have deadlines approaching and frankly, if this amalgamation is going to happen, it needs to be soon.
“The process of alignment, and the conversations we have are happening in various ways. What I can conclusively say is that ALL parties who align to our values have agreed to talk, except for Reform.
“Reform is the only party to absolutely ignore all attempts at conversation. We have however been given indirect ‘no’s’ and shown leaked information giving us strong indications they will not be responding any time soon. Not only that, they believe they ‘do not need’ an alignment with other parties and stand every chance of winning a general election on their own.”
The parties Jane is thought to be actually having conversations with are smaller than even her own. The obvious contender for amalgamation is Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party, which stood no candidates in last year’s local elections nor in any by-elections and appears to exist only as a vehicle for its founder’s ego.
Further on the fringes are the Heritage Party, led by former UKIP official and anti-vaccine activist David Kurten, all 15 of whose candidates in 2022’s local elections came last, and the English Constitution Party, which campaigns for English independence from the UK and on some arcane theories about “common law”. Neither would bring much to UKIP’s amalgamation plans in terms of members, finance or campaigning nous – the parties’ candidates in last year’s Southend West by-election (in which the main parties did not stand following the murder of Sir David Amess) they polled 236 and 86 votes respectively.
As it stands, then, the UK’s far-right looks set to remain fragmented through to at least the next general election. Meanwhile, welcome Anne Widdecombe to the Judean People’s Front. Or is it the People’s Front of Judea?