Won’t get fooled again

Arch-moderniser Nick Boles on what the Cameroons got wrong – and why they’ll win anyway

10 November 2012

Few have been more influential in the process of Tory modernisation than Nick Boles. He founded Policy Exchange, the think tank that came up with most of its ideas, and has been a tireless, tieless advocate for the cause. But when we meet in the Palace of Westminster, he is in reflective mood. The first phase of his career is complete (he was elevated to the government in the recent reshuffle) and he wants to talk about what he and his fellow modernisers got right and what they got wrong.

Boles is 6ft 6in, but he’s a friendly chap and he smiles a lot so you don’t feel talked down to. After we take our seats, he needs a moment to unfurl his limbs, but he’s soon talking animatedly, keen to discuss whether the financial crash affected the Tory modernisation project. ‘We shouldn’t take the excuse that we didn’t know then what we know now,’ he says, ‘because even if there hadn’t been the economic crash it probably is fair to say that one of the things that was missing was a story about how to improve most people’s material lot.’

Warming to his theme, Boles concedes that ‘for classic, relatively low income, Midlands and northern towns and cities there was something missing’. He blames this on the modernisers being ‘very carried away with — which were very much the media -zeitgeist — the chocolate oranges in W.H. Smith and some of the environmental messages and the work/life balance stuff and all of that. We got side-tracked a bit from what is now clear should be our proper concern… we didn’t have a strong economic message.’ They were, he says, perhaps ‘overly obsessed’ with university-educated professionals in Cambridge, and not attentive enough to ‘the hard-working strivers’.

Most modernisers abide by the dictum ‘never apologise, never explain’, so this is already a striking admission. But Boles isn’t yet done with regrets. He moves on to the Cameroons’ flirtation with ‘Red Toryism’, a mix of social conservatism and economic communitarianism. Or, as Boles puts it, ‘That Phillip Blond nonsense we indulged in.’ With a note of anger in his voice, he laments:  ‘Phillip Blond and others, by using incredibly complicated phrases full of very long words that we all had to look up, sort of hoodwinked us into thinking there was some interestingly new type of Conservative who wasn’t obsessed by costs and making people’s wage packets go further… I think that was a blind alley which we nearly got stranded down.’

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In a sign of how far the Cameroons have now moved, Boles declares that ‘supermarkets have done more to promote the quality of life, the well-being, the happiness, all of those fluffy things that we put at the front and centre, than government has done in the past 20 years’. He is, he says, a proud member of the Tesco party.

Boles also wants to emphasise that modernisers aren’t the old Tory left reincarnated: ‘The last thing I want anyone to call me is a wet.’ But this is not to say that he is abandoning all the old modernising arguments. In a civil partnership himself, he remains an advocate of gay marriage. He admits that if there was a vote in his constituency association ‘there would probably be a majority against it’. But he reckons the majority of that majority would be resigned to change: ‘The bulk of them are not going to throw their toys out of the pram over it.’

He also thinks that the Tories have not even begun to reach out to black and ethnic minority voters. ‘We won’t be able to persuade people from BME communities that we’re on the side of their economic interests and their material interests, the newer concerns, until we’ve also cleared away a lot of the stuff over Enoch Powell and Macpherson and all those things that we never really, in my view, dealt with.’

Boles says that the initial post-2005 Cameroon modernisation ‘was brilliant for Hove [the seat he fought unsuccessfully in 2005] but actually there aren’t that many Hoves’. He credits Margaret Thatcher’s Grantham, the constituency he won in 2010, with having changed his political outlook on issues like immigration. He now sounds tougher than most Tories, complaining that this country ‘doesn’t in any way challenge’ the idea that the free movement of people means ‘people can just speculatively move to another European country without either money in their pockets or the actual offer of a job’.

In a book published in the early months of the coalition, Boles suggested a Tory-Lib Dem pact at the next election. It was quickly rejected, and Boles now says it was only ever part of a plan: ‘I saw it as phase two of a process which I hoped would involve, in the long run, the Liberal Democrats, or a substantial chunk of the Liberal Democrats, effectively becoming part of the Conservative party.’ He hasn’t, though, given up on the idea entirely. He would still prefer a Tory party of which David Laws could be a member. ‘People have to understand that if you don’t broaden your party sufficiently to appeal to a broad majority of voters, the chances of ending up having to go into these slightly painful coalition negotiations’ are far higher.

But Boles is surprisingly confident about the next election. The choice, he says, will be ‘more stark than at the last one’. He thinks that if the economy is ticking along, voters may ‘in quite substantial numbers say, yes, actually I think David Cameron is talking to me’. He even believes this could deliver a majority. ‘Of course it looks hard on the ground and in terms of individual seat campaigns, but 80 per cent of an election is decided at that broad narrative level and the broad choice between two leaders and two visions and so I think it is doable.’

Boles would have been the Tory candidate for Mayor of London in 2008 if a serious illness had not forced him to drop out of the contest. Boris Johnson inherited his campaign team. He also used to share a flat with Michael Gove. So he’s uniquely well qualified to comment on who would make the better Tory leader. This is the question he dodges, stressing that he believes Gove when he says he’ll never run.

One thing’s for sure, though, Boles will carry on influencing the party’s agenda whoever is leader. As he puts it, ‘Modernisation is a permanent process.’

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Show comments
  • Open_Palm

    Long may Boles’s modernisation effort continue. He has been calling it right and the party has never been more united. AND he got his promotion!

  • http://twitter.com/David_V_Smith David V Smith

    This is the first time I’ve wondered if Mr Boles is right. As a Grantham lad, who is moving back after eight years away, I’m pleased my new MP recognises that his party needs an economic argument.

  • Mr Creosote

    He was very impressive at the planning committee grilling a couple of weeks ago and I believe may have the gumption to actually get the sclerotic system working and some much needed housing built. The Boles/ Prisk team seem much more capable than Shapps, who talked the talk but did not do the walk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Iain-Hill/100000917822376 Iain Hill

    Pity you closed comments on Cameron’s disgraceful conflation paedophiles=gays on TV. Many men who abuse boys are not gay. It is about power, surely everyone with any education knows that.

    • James

      Yeah, especially if you went to boarding school. Thing is Cameron didn’t conflate the two, he pointed out the danger of this conflation occurring, surely everyone not trying to smear Cameron knows that.

  • Liberal Tory

    Interesting piece. Good to have the best element of Tory modernisation – it’s social liberalism – firmly detached from that ghastly ‘Red Toryism’ stuff. Personally, I was delighted that the party was disowning the vulgar populism of the Hague years, but it was always my concern that the Cameron project was nudging the Tories in a direction almost as bad, melding the complacent paternalism of the pre-Thatcher years with an infusion of Guardianista obsessions. ‘Red Toryism’ encapsulated that. A blend of rational Euroscepticism, free market economics and open-ness to all colours, creeds and lifestyles is a vastly superior combination – let’s hope Boles means what he says.

  • http://twitter.com/bbcgoogle Rockin Ron

    One interesting thing about deluded people like Boles is that they confidently assert that their mistakes were a long time ago, without making the connection to the present. If he admits to getting it so wrong, why is the author of this puff piece still so in awe of him? Boles is “forever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding.” Hang on, the author is James Forsyth – explains everything.

  • vix

    No, supermarkets have ruined the farmer
    No, if you worry about ‘looking wet’ you are not fit to lead anything
    No, black and ethnic voters want to be equal under British law, designed by government, approved by parliament, assented by the Queen and enforced by a fair police force
    No, examine all immigration and don’t tinker with ‘Europeans with no job offer’ (that IS wet)
    No, don’t change your policy to ‘broaden’ your party. Have a belief and stand by it (that’s NOT wet)
    Interesting to hear about your career, how you are chasing votes and just how shallow Conservatism has become, Mr Boles. No votes from me.

  • Guru Mckenzie

    Boles is yet another “selective” libertarian – free markets are great until they clash with his deep rooted small c conservatism. There won’t be any real growth in this country unless we can drive down wage costs so the free flow of labour is crucial.

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