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Nigel Farage and his allies have relaunched their political party, encouraging people to walk past their local war memorial on Remembrance Sunday in a low-key anti-lockdown protest that marks a fresh attempt to restore their political relevance.
The leaders of the Reform UK party – renamed from the Brexit party – hope to occupy a political space until now dominated by a few rebel Conservatives at Westminster, and by conspiracy theorists on the streets and online.
The party chairman, Richard Tice, and a few dozen others stood to watch an official wreath-laying ceremony at the Royal Artillery memorial on Hyde Park Corner in central London on Sunday morning, joined by curious joggers and walkers, to the surprise of those officiating who had not expected any more than a handful to turn up.
Tice said those attending were engaged in “a demonstration of respect and commemoration in line with the government regulations”, adding that “it was encouraging to see so many people here”.
Others present included the actor Laurence Fox, who is trying to launch his own political party to “reclaim” British values from politicians, and the London assembly member David Kurten, originally elected under the Ukip banner but now leading his own party.
Farage and Tice have been looking for new issues to exploit as the Brexit process draws close to a conclusion, a search with a fresh urgency after the defeat of Donald Trump, who had been their most high-profile overseas supporter.
Party insiders said the new direction had been “under consideration for several months”, but the timing appears opportunistic given the second England-wide lockdown was announced only a week ago.
Farage had tacked to the right in the summer, highlighting the issue of migrant Channel crossings in tiny, dangerous boats. At that time, he said by autumn he wanted to switch to campaigning on crime and even focus on Gypsy and traveller communities.
A spokesperson said the latest redirection had been driven by “the government’s badly handled Covid response”, a belief that “the opposition won’t do any better”, and that the second lockdown was an overreaction.
“The lockdown doesn’t seem to gel with lived reality,” said Gawain Towler, a spokesperson for Reform UK. “Yes, we all know people who have been ill or even those who have died. But how many of those have died have been under 60? Meanwhile, we all know people who have been furloughed or are out of work, and that really is a problem for the nation going forward.”
Reform UK aims to run candidates in the London, Scottish and Welsh elections next spring. Farage is thought unlikely to stand to be London mayor, but Tice has shown interest in seeking the Conservative nomination in the past.
It is unclear how much support there is for an anti-lockdown party in practice. David Lawrence, a researcher with Hope Not Hate, said: “There is potentially a pool for Farage to draw upon, and he has shown with Brexit that he can campaign effectively around an issue.”
He pointed to a mushrooming of anti-lockdown groups during spring and early summer, rapidly gaining in popularity even though they were often linked to radical or far-right sentiment or conspiracy topics, anti-vaccination or anti-5G. “Part of the problem is that people are stuck indoors, spending more time online,” he added.
Two protest events in London in August and September attracted upwards of 10,000 attendees, with David Icke among those speaking. Others present carried placards linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory that has taken hold among Trump supporters in the US and is spreading to the UK.
Pollsters, however, are less convinced there is significant public sentiment for anti-lockdown politics. A poll by YouGov at the beginning of the month showed 72% of English adults supported the second lockdown, although that was down from 93% at the time of the first lockdown.
Deborah Mattinson, from pollster BritainThinks, said: “I think this is attractive to a tiny bunch of people, particularly a niche group of older voters. At the moment we find most people are more fearful about the health than economic risks.”
Some Conservatives, though, warn that a Farage relaunch – if it were to gain traction – could have a significant impact on their party. “I think Tory MPs feel they have seen off Farage over Brexit.
“But if the Reform party were to take 4-7% of the vote over the lockdown, and that meant the Conservatives were well behind Labour in the polls, then I think you’d see some real jitters,” a Conservative campaign strategist said.
Source: The Guardian
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