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.’
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.’