Nick Boles is a Business Minister and an Education Minister, and is MP for Grantham and Stamford.
The Sunday Times is a reliable source of entertainment especially if, like me, you’re not much of a churchgoer and enjoy a bit of political gossip with your eggs-and-b on the Sabbath morn. Their political editor is an inventive wordsmith and, applying his trusty Bunsen burner to a a few meagre scraps, has conjured up an intoxicating brew involving modernisers leaving the Conservative Party if our colleague Andrea Leadsom is elected leader. Only one problem: it’s not going to happen.
The modernisation of the Conservative Party is a process, not an event, with different phases – and different emphases as it unfolds. Changing the social attitudes of the party so we learned how to treat women and gay people and people of different races and faiths with equal respect was a vital step, first pioneered by Theresa May as Party Chairman. But so was Iain Duncan Smith’s focus on social justice and the roots of poverty. So, too, was Michael Gove’s commitment to reforming state schools so that they work well for everyone – rather than offering the well-off and the well-connected ways to escape their clutches.
As the Party grapples with a leadership contest following the momentous decision to leave the European Union, modernisation requires us to turn our eyes to the shrinking of opportunities for young people, the perpetuation of the gender pay gap and our society’s persistent failure to deliver equal life chances to people from ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and people who grow up in care. That gives us Tory modernisers a lot to be getting on with in the next few years.
The second truth about modernisation is this: it has never been more mainstream in the Conservative Party – so much so that most of its practitioners have never felt the need to identify themselves as modernisers. They are just 21st century Conservatives. The more time I spend with the remarkable group of women and men elected in 2015. the more I realise that they truly are Cameron’s children: passionate about making the world a better place especially for those born into disadvantage, pragmatic about the policies we pursue, and practical in their approach to the role of MPs in helping make change happen. This is one of the most positive developments of the Cameron years. It will define the party for a generation, whoever is elected leader.
But there is one area where modernisation failed, and failed badly. We failed to renew our party at the grassroots. With a few honourable exceptions, mostly in marginal seats, most MPs rely on the incredible loyalty and commitment of an heroic generation of activists, many of whom are now in their 70s and 80s. It is unfair on them, and it will wreak havoc on our political effectiveness, if we do not find a way to build a modern, digital campaigning force alongside the traditional party structures. Whoever is elected leader should give Robert Halfon carte blanche to deliver the modernisation of the voluntary party that is long overdue.
With David Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister and Gove’s defeat in the leadership contest, one important chapter in the story of Tory modernisation has closed. As an attendant lord in this story, one who swelled a progress, and started a scene or two, I feel a twinge of regret. But my main feeling is one of hope. Hope that the baton of modernisation is being passed to a new generation, and that the contribution of our One Nation Conservative Party to the betterment of our country, and the service of the British people, has only just begun.