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Why Lee Anderson's defection to Reform UK is no laughing matter

Lee Anderson MP has joined Richard Tice in Reform UK | Alamy

Why Lee Anderson's defection to Reform UK is no laughing matter

"Over the last year or so, I've had to do a lot of soul-searching on my political journey," said Lee Anderson, breaking off mid-sentence to snap "who's laughing?" at the audience.

Next to him, the hand of an unseen aide moved a Union flag that was obscuring Anderson’s face from the cameras. 

At a press conference in central London, the former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party was discussing his defection to Reform UK.

"I don't expect much in politics," he told the gathered press pack, "other than to speak my mind".

In a defence of free speech, Anderson – who lost the Tory whip last month for refusing to apologise over comments about London mayor Sadiq Khan – said his opinions "are not controversial".

And in some parts of society, his claims that foodbanks exist to feed the egos of "do-gooder" founders, that meals can be cooked from scratch "for around 30 pence a day" and that "nuisance tenants" should be made to live in tents and pick vegetables, are probably not controversial.

That's despite the outcry they've provoked from other sections of the public appalled at his commentary on minorities, the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and more.

It's all about speaking to your audience. And in the move from the Conservatives to Reform UK, Anderson will no longer be expected to appease the Tory moderates.

Instead, he is the first-ever MP for a party which seeks to adopt tougher "tactics" to address Channel migration and suggests there are now signs that rising global temperatures are now "levelling off". 

The audience for those messages is there, and it must not be overlooked.

Rebranded from its previous incarnation of the Brexit Party, the populist Reform UK has Euroscepticism at its core and once had a foothold in the Scottish Parliament after ex-Tory MSP Michelle Ballantyne, who was then sitting as an independent, joined its ranks. 

The switch came shortly before the 2021 Holyrood elections, when Ballantyne failed to secure re-election and stood down as the party's Scottish leader in a year when the Scottish Conservative vote went up.

UK party leader Richard Tice now aims to take support from the Conservatives, using Anderson as his biggest and loudest recruiting sergeant.

Lee Anderson MP speaks to the press | Alamy

Anderson, he said, is the "champion" Reform UK needs to knock blocks off the Red Wall, a man of "great integrity" with a "no nonsense" approach.

And he repeated his determination that his party will field a candidate in every seat in the UK at the forthcoming general election, including all 57 in Scotland.

Recent UK-wide polling put Reform at 10 per cent and the party has said it is targeting people, not places. 

Anderson's recruitment then, is a real win for Tice. After all, Anderson's promotion by Rishi Sunak was seen as an effort to appeal to the right wing of that party and reach out to disenfranchised working class voters. The string of headline-grabbing controversies since has only increased his public profile and ability to reach those who feel politics-as-usual does not work for them.

Anderson's defection also opens up the possibility that others on the right of the Tories may follow and Tice said he would be "surprised" if this does not happen before the UK next goes to the polls. Either way, this development causes problems for Sunak in uniting his own ranks, in which divisions between right and left have been all too public over this parliamentary term.

In Scotland, where Douglas Ross has fought to put his own stamp on the Conservatives, he's having to contend with the Chancellor's decision to extend the windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas, something he has vocally opposed and stated he will vote against.

Whether Anderson's move helps to woo Scottish Tories, or those in other parts of the UK, is yet to be seen. But in an environment in which experts say incivility is on the rise and a change of government is widely expected, it would be a mistake to write off Anderson as yesterday's man, or to brush off that portion of the population attracted to his message.

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