Richard Tice accuses Tories of ‘dirty tricks’ in attempting to persuade Reform candidates to stand down

Reform chair Richard Tice has accused the Tories of “dirty tricks” after one of his party’s candidates withdrew his papers to stand at the last minute and endorsed former cabinet minister Sir Gavin Williamson.

In a dramatic final 24 hours before nominations closed there had been fevered speculation that as many as six Tory MPs and other candidates could defect to Reform after Nigel Farage decided to stand in Clacton and become leader of the party.

But instead no Tories switched and Tom Wellings, the Reform candidate for the new seat of Stone, Great Wryly and Penkridge in Staffordshire, quit and put out a statement endorsing Sir Gavin.

It all meant that Reform are understood to have fielded 611 candidates, just short of the 630 they had hoped for.

Richard Tice is angry at the last minute defection (PA)
Richard Tice is angry at the last minute defection (PA)

Mr Wellings said he had made his decision in the final hour before nominations closed “after careful consideration and extensive analysis” of local polling.

He told local voters: “The polls indicate that Labour is close to winning the seat in our constituency. This is a matter of deep concern to me and should be to anyone who supports the policies and agenda of Reform UK.

“Given the current political landscape my continued candidacy risks splitting the vote, thereby increasing the chances of a Labour MP being elected.

“Therefore, I have decided to support Gavin Williamson, who has considerable experience in government. I am confident Gavin is well positioned to effectively challenge a left-wing Labour government.”

A furious Mr Tice, who as chairman is still responsible for candidates, demanded to know if Mr Welling had been offered money, jobs or any other inducements to effectively defect.

Former education secretary Gavin Williamson now has the backing of the Reform candidate (PA)
Former education secretary Gavin Williamson now has the backing of the Reform candidate (PA)

He said: “Wellings put his papers in on Wednesday then in the last hour without telling us withdrew them. I am challenging Gavin Williamson to say whether money, jobs or a safe seat was offered to Wellings to do this.”

He claimed that such tactics had been used by the Tories elsewhere with “dirty tricks”.

“One of our candidates in the same region was offered a safe council seat and two jobs to stand down. He sensibly rejected the offers and told us what was going on.”

But Sir Gavin rejected the claims. He told The Independent: “This is certainly not the case.”

A Tory spokesman described Mr Tice’s accusations as “utter rubbish”.

Ironically, Mr Tice had previously been accused of trying to get Tory MPs to defect by offering them money, an accusation he denied.

But after nominations closed, Tory candidate Tom Hunt, who is defending his Ipswich seat, put out a message confirming he had come close to defecting to Reform.

He said: “In many senses Reform UK is as tempting to me as it is to many of you. The reality is though that under the present system Reform UK could actually end up being the greatest enabler of a crushing Labour victory at the forthcoming general election; an outcome that I'm desperately keen the country avoids. I'm disappointed that Reform UK feel the need to stand against Conservative candidates such as myself who share so many of their aims and values. “

A row has also broken out in Leeds, where hardline Tory Brexiteer Andrea Jenkyns, who was being targeted as a potential defector to Reform, found she had a Reform candidate against her, while neighbouring pro-EU Labour MP Hilary Benn did not. Worse still, her Reform candidate lives in Benn’s constituency.

She said: “This is proof, if any more was needed, that Reform’s sole aim is to destroy the Conservative Party regardless of whether or not true common sense Conservatives get caught in the crossfire.”

But Mr Tice hit back: “You had your chance to defect and you chose to stay with the sinking ship. Choices. Tories have broken Britain yet your arrogant sense of entitlement means you think we should stand down for you? Given what Tories have done to our country, you should stand down.”