Reform’s Richard Tice: the ex-businessman fuelled by Euroscepticism who quit the Tories

Richard Tice
Richard Tice, the Reform UK leader, says: 'The truth is that politics is a brutal business. You just have to deal with it' - JEFF GILBERT

It was a passing comment made by a Parisian taxi driver on a summer’s day in 1991, but the remark has stuck with the passenger more than three decades on.

A twentysomething Richard Tice was working as a businessman in the French capital when he was told by a cabbie: “Companies don’t exist to make a profit, they exist to employ people.”

As he reflects on the exchange now, Mr Tice suggests it sums up “the socialist mindset in mainstream continental Europe” he would encounter during the two years that he spent overseas in the employ of a small start-up.

“Living in Paris and working in Paris, taught me a lot about how the French economy works. The attitude to entrepreneurship and small companies. It taught me a lot about socialism.”

And for the 59-year-old, who has now spent three years as the leader of Reform UK, politics and business have never been far apart.

Mr Tice was born in the Surrey market town of Farnham on Sept 13 1964, the third and youngest child of Joan and James Tice.

In response to criticism from a Tory MP about “daddy’s money” in March, Mr Tice said: “My dad is dead, I miss him very much, he had little money, and gave me not a penny.”

Joan died aged 86 following a short illness in May 2019, just as her son was fast gaining prominence in the Brexit battles which came to define that year.

But until the referendum on European Union membership and its fallout, the world of Westminster could not have felt further away from a man who felt an entrepreneurial calling from an early age.

Richard Tice with samples of hard stick-shaped boiled sugar sweets featuring his party's name
Richard Tice with Blackpool rock featuring the Reform Party's name in April - PAUL ELLIS/AFP

Between 13 and 18 Mr Tice was educated at Uppingham School, situated deep in the countryside and located more than three hours away from his birthplace in Rutland.

Alongside the Reform leader, it counts Sir Malcolm Campbell, Rick Stein, Stephen Fry and Jonathan Agnew among its alumni.

Mr Tice proved so taken with his alma mater that he eventually sent his own children there. He was also appointed as vice-chairman of the Uppingham board of trustees in 2013.

His enjoyment of his school years would go on to spark a lifelong interest in the education system.

“I’ve never forgotten the start [Uppingham] gave me in life,” he reflected in 2019.  “It’s an advantage that too many children are denied, and it’s a key reason I try to play a part in improving education.”

Following the completion of his A-Level exams – and three failed driving tests before passing at the fourth time of asking – Mr Tice went to Salford for university.

He has previously described the city as a “rough place” at the time in the mid to late 1980s, saying he “learned a lot away from the gilded, fortunate south-east” of the country.

“That informed a huge amount of my sense that we could do so much better.”

Mr Tice went on to gain what he describes as “quite a technical” degree in quantity surveying and construction economics.

“I always knew what I wanted to do in terms of work,” he says. “I always wanted to go into the property industry. It was steeped in the family blood, so to speak.”

His four-year stint at the commercial property and development company London and Metropolitan, his first employer after graduating, saw him spend two years in France and two in London.

But the calling of his family business was never far away and he left the firm to join Sunley Group, which took its name from Mr Tice’s grandfather, Bernard, towards the end of 1991 as its joint chief executive officer – a significant upward move.

Tice, pictured with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, in 2018
Mr Tice, pictured with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage in 2018 - DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

Following Mr Tice’s 15-year tenure, which saw the company acquire more than 100 sites and build thousands of homes across the capital and the south of England, it sold the vast majority of its property and reimbursed shareholders in 2006 on the eve of the recession.

He spent the next few years “on the sidelines” as a property adviser before joining CLS Holdings, a large multinational that oversaw more than £1 billion of assets, as chief executive in 2010.

But by the time he became chief executive of Quidnet Capital four years later, Mr Tice was starting to think more about party politics than pricing up properties.

“I’m known in the City, I’ve got a track record of success. But I always knew that at some point I might want to get involved in current affairs and or politics, because it was a particularly interesting hobby. I guess the whole European issue was the trigger.”

A longstanding Conservative Party donor who backed David Davis’s 2001 leadership campaign, Mr Tice tore up his membership card just over a decade after that contest in protest against defence spending cuts overseen by Lord Cameron during his time in Downing Street.

In the end, however, it was his deep-seated Euroscepticism that prompted him to trade in an accomplished business career for the rough and tumble of front-line politics, resulting in Mr Tice co-founding Leave. EU in 2015 with Arron Banks, a fellow businessman.

While Vote Leave was designated as the official ‘out’ campaign ahead of the referendum, Leave. EU’s punchy publicity materials and rousing rhetoric ensured the organisation had a high-profile presence.

‘The bad boys of Brexit’

Mr Tice and Mr Banks, along with their fellow campaigner Andy Wigmore and then-Ukip leader Nigel Farage, soon became known as the “bad boys of Brexit”.

Online posts suggest Mr Banks and Mr Wigmore were not taken with Mr Tice. Mr Wigmore shared a recent article calling Mr Tice and his journalist girlfriend Isabel Oakeshott the “gruesome twosome of the Right” while Mr Banks has dubbed him a “serial loser”, “Posh Tice” and “Dick Tice”.

“We turned Mr Collegiate into the devil,” one senior campaign figure recalls. “He takes himself very, very seriously, which was of course catnip for Aaron and Andy.”

A second source who worked on the Leave EU campaign adds: “Mr Tice was frankly a w----r. He was self-important, arrogant and very dismissive of those with a lot of experience around him. He wouldn’t take advice, it was all about him.

“But that is not the case now, not by a long chalk. I’ve never known someone to get their character and attitude to improve so rapidly as their importance grows.”

But dispute tensions among some of the “bad boys” during the campaign, they were happy in the early hours of June 24, 2016, as it emerged that the public had opted to leave the European Union.

The Tories had only just replaced Lord Cameron with Theresa May when Mr Tice quit Leave.EU three weeks after the referendum and set up Leave Means Leave with John Longworth, who had been forced out by the British Chambers of Commerce after breaking ranks to back Brexit.

“We were certainly of the view that the battle wasn’t over,” Mr Longworth says. “Revolutions rarely succeed while the establishment is still in charge.

“I became convinced of this very quickly and Richard had asked if I was interested in creating an organisation that makes sure Brexit was delivered.”

Mr Tice and his journalist ex-girlfriend Isabel Oakeshott
Mr Tice and his journalist ex-girlfriend Isabel Oakeshott were descibed as the 'gruesome twosome of the Right' - PA/ALAMY

Amid talk among commentators of remaining in the single market and the customs union, Leave Means Leave marketed itself as a “campaign for a clean Brexit”. Mr Tice recalls how he was the first politician to use the phrase “no deal is better than a bad deal”, which Mrs May later repeated ad nauseam while seeking to appease Tory MPs.

“I set up Leave Means Leave because I saw the absurd reaction of the establishment, and the squeals and howls from the metropolitan elite. And I thought: there’s going to be a problem here.

“With a few like-minded souls, we raised a modest amount of money and got going in a modest way. We did a little bit of media work, a little research …

“We were there, but in a modest way, until 2018 when it was clear with the Chequers summit that, despite all Theresa May’s warm words, the betrayal was complete and Nigel [Farage] and I knew it.”

Leading Tories including Boris Johnson and David Davis quit their cabinet posts in protest at the Brexit deal May had drawn up following the Chequers summit.

It was against this backdrop that Leave Means Leave went from a relatively small-scale pressure group to a significant force in British politics. Aided by Mr Farage taking on a vice-chairman role and support from swathes of the Conservative back benches, the group would raise £1 million in August 2018 alone.

Relations between Mr Tice and Mr Longworth were broadly good but the latter says his former colleague “didn’t always get the policy stuff right”.

“He committed to it 100 per cent – both financially and in person. But in a sense, I was the policy man if you like, and he could get it very wrong. He was very keen on Efta [a European trade club] and it took me a while to explain to Richard why it wouldn’t work.”

Aside from the intricacies of what a good Brexit deal looked like, Leave Means Leave steadily grew in support and arguably reached a high point in the form of the March to Leave.

Over 13 days in the spring of 2019, protesters made their way from Brexit-voting Sunderland in northeast England to a rally in Parliament Square on March 29, addressed by both Mr Tice and Mr Farage as well as parliamentarians Baroness Hoey, Mark Francois and Ian Paisley Jr.

By that point, however, both Mr Tice and Mr Farage’s focus was already on the future because the May European elections presented a unique opportunity for their Eurosceptic band of brothers as deadlock and division continued to grip the parliamentary Conservative Party.

The Brexit Party, which had been formed at the end of 2018, with Mr Farage at the helm, swept to victory just six months after its inception with Mr Tice returned as one of the MEPs for the East of England.

Mr Longworth divulges that, at this point, he and Mr Tice “had a bit of a falling out”, adding: “I was a Brexit Party MEP only because I wanted to achieve Brexit.

“My objective has always been pure, in the sense that I’ve wanted to get Brexit done properly. If you’re a politician like Richard, sometimes the objective can be slightly different.”

Heavy defeat at the hands of the Brexit Party and the collapse of the Conservative vote to single-digit figures forced Mrs May’s resignation and Tory activists propelled Boris Johnson into No 10.

Promises made by Mr Johnson led Mr Farage to stand down hundreds of his candidates at the December 2019 general election, although hundreds more – including Mr Tice, who would come third in Hartlepool – contested seats that in no way threatened the prospect of a Tory majority.

The following year began with another rally in Parliament Square for Mr Farage and Mr Tice but this gathering was significantly more celebratory as they marked the end of years of wrangling and Britain’s departure from the EU on Jan 31 2020.

“Boris got elected, talked a good game and there was a moment where I thought ‘that’s my political career done’,” Mr Tice says. “I thought they’re going to finally do what they promised and I can go back to business.”

Yet nobody could have factored in the devastation that the Covid-19 pandemic would bring just weeks later, nor that Johnson – who had long been hailed for his libertarian credentials – would impose a series of nationwide lockdowns aimed at curbing the spread of the disease.

At this point the Brexit Party rebranded as Reform UK. Mr Farage and Mr Tice launched their new vehicle in the pages of The Telegraph, with a focus on opposing the Government’s pandemic policies in the short-term while keeping one eye on more wide-ranging institutional reform.

“I felt that we still needed to have a vehicle there, just in case,” Mr Tice says. “I was very conscious of an expression from my late uncle in my business life. He said, ‘Richard you’ve got to be in the room to be in the deal’.”

Richard Tice and Nigel Farage
Richard Tice and Nigel Farage, the founding member of Reform - a rebrand of the Brexit Party - CHRIS J RATCLIFFE/GETTY

By March 2021, as Mr Johnson was enjoying renewed popularity with the end of lockdowns and the success of the vaccine rollout, Mr Farage stepped aside and was succeeded by Mr Tice.

At this point Reform was seen as a fringe group, it was polling at around two percentage points, and its leadership was widely deemed to be a thankless task.

Mr Farage’s involvement in Reform has not extended beyond an honorary president role for three years. His efforts are now focused on the award-winning nightly television show he presents on GB News, the startup channel that has built a devoted Right-of-centre audience.

Mr Tice also hosts a weekly Sunday show, although he is clear his work with Reform, which often involves travelling the country on a bright blue battle bus to campaign, is his priority.

Speaking from sunny Florida, Mr Farage says of Mr Tice: “He’s kept together a political party under the name of Reform that most commentators said was not necessary. He’s been able to push it up in the polls to double digits, after some difficult times.

“He wants to make a difference, he’s excellent on policy, he comes across very well on television. I take my hat off to him. What he’s managed to achieve without all that much noise, just steadily keeping going, is pretty incredible.”

He adds: “Keeping Reform alive at a moment when the Conservatives were massively in the lead in the polls, when everyone said you’ve now got the Government you needed … That shows a remarkable resilience. That must be said to be Richard’s defining characteristic.”

His sentiments are echoed by Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory frontbencher who is now Reform’s spokesman on home affairs. Widdecombe hails Mr Tice as a “very determined man” who “shows a lot of willpower … He’s a completely refreshing change from the career politicians that I’ve known for so long.”

The political mayhem of 2022, which saw Tory MPs defenestrate Boris Johnson and Liz Truss in quick succession, was a turning point for Reform. It soon crept up to six per cent in the polls and by the time the election was called in May had approximately doubled its support, as it outflanked the Conservatives on the Right on a wide range of issues including net zero, illegal and legal migration and tax cuts.

In March this year it gained its first MP – something the Brexit Party never managed – as Lee Anderson, a former deputy Tory chairman, defected after being stripped of the Conservative party whip.

Mr Tice attributes the success of his party to word of mouth. “We were just ever-present. Very slowly and very gradually we just ticked up a little bit. We kept working, we kept the faith.”

Once again referencing his decades in business, he continues: “We’re an entrepreneurial political startup and fundamentally if you work hard, and if you’ve got a good product, then gradually you’ll gain clients and customers, word will spread.

“There’s nothing better than a personal recommendation, and that’s true in politics. ‘Have you heard of these people? I quite like what they say.’ That creates a sense of momentum. This is literally a word-of-mouth, grassroots buildup.”

From his remarks at Reform rallies and in television interviews, Tice’s loathing of the party he once backed as a donor and card-carrying member could not be clearer.

“My feeling is that he hates the Conservative Party and what the Tories have done and stood for,” Mr Longworth says.

“That’s definitely a driver of his, a motivation of his. That said, an awful lot of people in the country might share that view.”

Ben Habib, Mr Tice’s deputy, has spoken of what the two men believe is a need to “obliterate the Tory Party”, not least because of his regrets over Mr Farage standing down so many Brexit Party candidates only for Mr Johnson not to deliver the Brexit that many Eurosceptics had wanted.

“Richard is onside with the commitment not to stand down candidates, not to stand down for the Tories. He’s put that in writing to me.

“He also understands that we’ve got to ditch net zero, we can’t afford not to cut taxes … The Tories are screwing us, Richard gets it. He knows what the mission is, and the British people know what the mission is. Reform UK is in tune with the British people.”

Others privately question whether Mr Tice is in fact motivated less by hatred of perceived Conservative failings than by personal revenge.

There has long been speculation in Westminster that he has unsuccessfully attempted to make the Tory candidate list in the past.

One source who worked with Mr Tice claims: “There is an element of Richard which is concerned with having power. For example, he was quite smitten with the idea of running as a Conservative for the mayoralty of London.”

But there is something of Mr Tice that remains inscrutable. Even many of those who work closely with Mr Tice on a daily basis know little about him away from work. Mr Habib says: “At school, you had friends outside the classroom and friends in the classroom. You tend not to know much about your friends in the classroom.

“You can be perfectly friendly and like them enormously, but you tend not to find out too much about their personal lives. I don’t see Richard outside the political arena and outside the framework of Reform UK and our joint battle. I don’t see him personally. So I don’t really know what makes him tick, you’d have to ask Isabel [Oakeshott].

Richards Tice canvassing in Sidcup
Mr Tice attributes the success of the Reform Party to word of mouth and being 'ever-present' - RUSSELL SACH

Among the details that are known about Mr Tice’s life outside politics is that he is an ardent (to which he adds “patient”) fan of Liverpool Football Club, while his perfect holiday is a ski trip. “If he could ski and watch Liverpool on the same day, he would,” a Reform source says.

Scarlett Maguire, a director at the polling firm JL Partners, notes that despite Reform’s polling success, Mr Tice is “struggling with name recognition”, particularly compared to Mr Farage.

The former UKIP leader ruled out on May 23 a return to front-line politics for the general election, saying he would “do my bit to help” Reform but not “go any further than that”, but his political stature threatens to overshadow Mr Tice nevertheless.

“He’s not a Nigel Farage,” Maguire says. “You could potentially argue there’s more of a blank slate there, that people don’t come to him with the same preconceptions as they do with Nigel, who is a bit of a Marmite figure.

“Things do seem to have picked up a little bit since this time last year for him, but I would say it’s quite interesting that he has lower name recognition than Reform at the moment as a party – and obviously much lower than Nigel’s.”

When JL Partners asked a representative sample of 2,383 British adults to describe Mr Tice in one word, only 433, or just under one in five, gave a response.

Among the few hundred who did have a view, the view of Mr Tice was mixed to say the least – ‘racist’, ‘leader’, ‘idiot’, ‘unknown’ and ‘Reform’.

He has strenuously rejected suggestions he or Reform are racist, calling them “nonsense”, and earlier this year won an apology from the BBC after the national broadcaster followed another outlet in referring to his organisation as “far-Right”.

A Reform party source is full of praise for the way Mr Tice has “grown into the role” since taking up the leadership mantle in 2021. “You’ll find that the activists are very loyal to him because he will go to Barrow-in-Furness for 20 people,” they explain.

“He will travel across the country, he will put in 10 hours of travel even when he doesn’t have to, even if there’s 20 people turning up … That sort of loyalty to the activists is being repaid.

“He is actively engaged, he enjoys going out and getting his hands dirty when it comes to the basics of campaigning. Leadership has forced him to deal with people, and he’s discovered he likes them – I don’t think he always used to. And they certainly like him back.”

Mr Tice says: “The truth is that politics is a brutal business. The bottom line is you just have to deal with it.

“I’m afraid to say some would probably call me sexist for saying this, but the truth is if you can’t stand the heat then get out the kitchen. There’s no point whinging about it. It is what it is.”

It may have been the socialism he saw in so much of French society that concerned Mr Tice in the early 1990s. But he is now preoccupied with the destruction of what he perceives as a socialist, Conservative-in-name-only government – and he is clear that he will stop at nothing to achieve it.

“There’s a reason why most successful people in business don’t go anywhere near front-line politics. That’s because it’s brutal at every level. It’s brutal financially, it’s brutal personally, it’s brutal on your family. That’s the reason why so few people do it.

“But the truth is if you want a company to be run well, you need top people running it. If you want a country to be run well, you need top people running it. It’s as simple as that.”