Nigel Farage and Richard Tice of Reform UK preach for a business tax on foreign workers

Anti-immigration party Reform UK, which is at 13 per cent in the polls, hosts media event in London

An unmanageable gang of photographers, a trestle table loaded with wine and a barking dog were all on hand as Reform UK, the right-wing party co-founded by Nigel Farage, called for a hike in tax for employers who hire foreign workers.

Farage and Richard Tice, the official leader of the party that is riding at 13 per cent in polls in advance of the July election, hosted the Westminster press pack on Thursday afternoon at Glaziers Hall, a conference centre near London Bridge.

British businesses pay national insurance contributions of 13.8 per cent of an employee’s salary. Tice announced that Reform wants it hiked to 20 per cent for foreign staff. The party, a persistent electoral threat to the Tories from the governing party’s right flank, claimed the increase would raise £20 billion over the five years of the next parliament.

More importantly for Reform voters, however, Tice said the move would cut the number of foreign workers. Net legal migration to Britain hit a record 764,000 in 2022. Reform wants that slashed to zero.

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The event was held in a grand ballroom far too big for a press conference; half of the seats were empty. But what the press pack lacked in numbers, its photographers made up for in enthusiasm, swarming all over Tice’s arrival as if it was the coming of the Messiah.

Tice, a wealthy former businessman and partner of well-known political journalist Isabel Oakeshott, played along mischievously. He marched to the stage before turning to face the barrage of cameras with his hands outstretched in a Christ-like pose in front of an image of the Union Jack.

The British economy, he announced, had a “deadly addiction – the drug of cheap overseas labour”.

“It is pushed on every street corner by the Labour Party and the Tories. What we need is a cure to this addiction,” said Tice, who declared the cure would be Reform’s employer immigration tax.

He accused British employers of driving down wages of local workers by importing labour, putting a strain on housing and public services.

“It’s you, big business, that is getting away without paying a decent wage [to British workers].”

There would be exemptions to the increased tax for micro businesses with less than five staff and employers in the health and social care sectors.

If Tice was the Messiah, then all that was left was the arrival of God himself. Sure enough, Farage appeared through a side door to join Tice onstage. The photographers hit defcon five, swarming all over each other to capture the best angle, like an anthill in the centre of the ballroom. A Reform aide kept warning them to crouch down; they were blocking everybody’s view.

Farage quickly warmed to Tice’s theme, as he explained his theory that mass immigration to Britain had led to a decline in British workers’ living standards. He also admitted the obvious: Reform would not win the election. But it would, he said, be the “real opposition” to a Labour government.

The event moved to a question-and-answer session, although there was heavy feedback from the microphone through the speakers. Out of nowhere, a dog barked. Somebody had brought a pooch to the press conference, and the speakers spooked it.

Speaking afterwards to The Irish Times, Tice suggested Reform’s employer immigration tax would not apply to Irish workers, as they have special status under the Common Travel Area. But it should apply to everybody else: “We need to freeze immigration. We need to let everything catch up.”

The journalists and Reform officials, as well as Tice and Farage, retired to an ante room where the insurgent party had laid on a lake of wine. Somebody got rid of the dog.

The Tories, meanwhile, are struggling to get rid of their smaller right-wing rival Reform in the polls.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times