The former skills minister on Brexit, the direction of the Conservative Party and David Cameron's legacyby Sam Macrory / September 30, 2016 / Leave a comment
Few politicians felt the abrupt change in the political weather on 23rd June as sharply as Nick Boles. Having found himself on the wrong side of the referendum argument, and as an MP seen as being close to the defeated ex-prime minister David Cameron, Boles describes the result of the vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union as being “as close to a revolution as this ancient, grumpy parliament gets.”
Over a decade ago, Boles was part of a collective of young, ambitious Tories, along with Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Vaizey and Michael Gove, known as the Notting Hill Set. The Conservative Party had been out of power for years, and they plotted how to modernise it—make it electable. Boles was late to the parliamentary party—he was first elected as an MP in 2010, when he won in Grantham and Stamford. But his connections and free-thinking saw him instantly branded as “one-to-watch.”
Cameron has now left the stage. As a fellow moderniser, Boles is exceptionally well-placed to comment on his legacy and how the Conservative Party should react to the referendum.
He resigned his ministerial post in what was then the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills following Theresa May’s coronation as prime minister, but her ruthlessness in terminating the ministerial careers of Osborne, Vaizey and Gove suggests his decision to jump first was a wise one.
“Part of me wishes that… we’d all just had a bit more sleep and a bit more time for emotions to settle,” says Boles, who briefly ran Michael Gove’s failed leadership campaign, of those “extraordinary” days after the referendum, but after a summer of silence he is re-emerging into the post-revolution landscape. He still sports the moderniser’s tie-free uniform, but he has declared as a supporter of Change Britain, the successor group to the Vote Leave campaign.
This may not be as surprising as it looks. In his 2010 book Which Way’s Up? Boles made the case for a “new immigration settlement,” and he now admits that he “deluded” himself into believing that Cameron’s pre-referendum renegotiation package was such an arrangement. Lincolnshire, home to his constituency, was a bastion of “Leave” voters, and Boles has rejected arguments put forward by Conservative colleagues and Open Britain, the successor group to the Stronger In campaign, that Britain must retain access to the Single Market.
“I think it’s a 95 per cent certainty that membership for the single market is inextricably tied to freedom of movement, so if the people are telling us, yet again, that they really do not accept this level of uncontrolled immigration then that has to be our starting point,” he argues. “We have to get a possible set of arrangements that is consistent with that rather than deluding ourselves that we can somehow fob them off with a new set of arrangements that doesn’t actually fix the core problem.”
“Brexit means Brexit” is May’s holding line but Boles is, for now, relaxed. “It will need to be explained, but so long as the determination to do it seems undimmed [then] it’s up to her.”
However, some of his more jittery colleagues are urging the PM to trigger Article 50—the process which starts the two year countdown on the UK’s EU exit—sooner rather than later. Boles joked that “there’s probably as many views as there are MPs” on this question, but he accepts that the timing question will “exorcise a few very brainy people or very committed people.” His own belief is that Article 50 is “a pretty obvious trap” to lose Britain’s negotiating advantage, and should be triggered “when we are good and ready.”
What Brexit did mean was the end of the Notting Hill set supremacy. Boles admits that “leaving the EU will obviously be the biggest thing that happened in David’s time as PM,” but he credits Cameron for “a brutal political truth: he has made it very hard for another force to dominate the centre ground.”
He believes his party is well placed to dominate for the next decade, but is quick to warn that the centre ground can be easily vacated.
Noting the pitch of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, and some Labour MPs, to be “the European party,” Boles accepts that “there is a very big “Remain” vote…. So there is that piece of the centre-ground. I don’t think it is of itself enough, but if we allow them any space to connect up that bit of the centre ground with any other bits then that’s where you are going to get a resurgence.”
By prioritising the thorny issue of grammar schools, using robust language on international aid, and ditching the Department of Energy and Climate Change, May seems determined to draw a line under Cameron’s premiership. What of his legacy?
Boles insists that May’s mantra of “a country that works for everyone” is one of modernisation, but he “can see how people… are drawing lines between those different points. There’s a change in style, priorities, attitude. Those things are inevitable. A new leader does have to find a way, especially a leader who hasn’t won an election, not even a party leadership election, to stamp her authority.”
While adamant that Cameroon thinking is now Conservative thinking—“You won’t find anyone who doesn’t believe in… a publicly funded NHS, a state education system which offers fantastic opportunities to everyone, that we shouldn’t be doing anything about climate change or poverty in the third world”—Boles will intervene if he sees that modernising agenda under threat.
“If any of those things start being undermined or questioned then I’ll come out all guns blazing,” he states. “Not because they are Notting Hill set ideas or because David Cameron is associated with them, but because it’s where a civilised, compassionate, successful, reasonable political party should be and certainly one I’m a member of. But I don’t sense any of that at the moment.”
He doesn’t rule out a return to ministerial office, but for now Boles’ energies are focused on “delivering Brexit” for the “dangerously disillusioned.” Otherwise, he warns, “we might end up with a proper revolution if we actually turn around after this referendum and say we’re staying in this Single Market and we’re staying with freedom of movement.”
The tumultuous summer of 2016 reshaped British politics forever, but this Conservative moderniser has work to do.