Last month I reported on the deteriorating relationship between Conservative Association and MP in Nick Boles’s constituency of Grantham and Stamford.
Following Boles’s threat to resign the whip rather than support No Deal, Philip Sagar, the association chairman, wrote to local members saying the comments amounted to “political suicide” and were “not patriotic”. Boles replied, arguing that he must prioritise what he thinks best for the country ahead of what his party might desire.
Things don’t seem to have improved since then – particularly following his very prominent work with Yvette Cooper to try to prevent No Deal or facilitate a postponement of Article 50.
Tonight Boles will address a meeting of local Conservative members. In his own words, “many of them are unhappy about the things I have been saying and doing in Parliament in relation to Brexit and want me to be deselected”. He has published a statement laying out the messages he intends to communicate about his views.
The meeting is informal, in that it doesn’t hold any official standing in terms of deselection, but it is a symptom of a fraught local environment. I have spoken to various people closely acquainted with the dispute, on all sides, and can reveal that more formal proceedings are set to follow shortly.
The Party’s constitution does not make mention the words ‘deselection’ or ‘no confidence’, despite the common use of both terms. Instead, the process is one of re-adoption:
‘A sitting Member of Parliament shall be required to make a written application to the Executive Council should he wish to seek re-adoption to stand again for Parliament or submit such an application if requested by the Executive Council.’
If an MP does want to be re-adopted, then the Association Executive will vote on the application between two weeks and two months after receiving it. The MP has a right to attend and speak before that vote if they wish.
Normally, associations are content to leave the timing of a re-adoption application to the MP. On rare occasions they will use their power to request that an application be made, normally if they suspect the MP intends to retire and they want to get on with selecting a successor in good time.
In Grantham and Stamford, however, I’m told the executive intends to use this power at their next meeting in order to demand Boles apply for re-adoption or confirm his intention not to do so. Effectively, that means the association is accelerating the process, with an implicit intention to swiftly vote not to re-adopt their MP. “We know what we have to do,” as one executive member told me.
A ballot of members
It is not known how Boles would reply to such a request, or to losing a vote of the executive if one was held. The constitution grants certain rights to a sitting MP, which are intended to prevent a clique simply getting rid of their Member by the means of dominating an association executive. So if Boles was to lose a re-adoption vote, he would have the right to either insist on a full postal ballot of the association’s membership, or alternatively to be automatically placed on the shortlist at the subsequent candidate selection meeting.
Those options can work in an MP’s favour. In 2013, the Reigate Association Executive rejected Crispin Blunt’s application for re-adoption, only for Blunt to then win the postal ballot of members by a clear majority. A few weeks later, however, Anne McIntosh and Tim Yeo both lost ballots in their respective constituencies, so they are no guaranteed Get Out Of Jail Free card for an incumbent.
Boles’s local opponents mostly seem quite confident that they would win a ballot if it came to one. I’m told that of the 500 or so members of the association, 200 have written to the executive about their MP’s position on Brexit. That is a remarkable number, given Conservatives’ natural dislike for deselections and the current association of such action with Momentum, and suggests both deep and widespread unhappiness. “It goes way beyond the activists, it’s the elderly lady who’s been a member for 70 years…and is taking the trouble to write a letter to say how unhappy she is,” as one senior volunteer put it.
An update sent by Sagar to the membership in early January echoed that impression. After reporting ‘over a hundred’ messages, he wrote that: ‘In all of my 4 years as your Chairman I have never received so many emails and letters about Nick’s actions. Over 99% of you are calling for his deselection as our MP; although in fairness there have been a few in support of his stance.’
One ward chairman, Councillor Robert Foulkes, has written to the association chairman calling for a No Confidence vote on the grounds that: ‘The referendum was democracy at its purest, a direct answer from the people. Nick is using his privileged position as our MP, elected in good faith, to actively subvert it.’ A No Confidence vote at an association meeting would not hold any formal power, but would still be a serious blow.
In short, things look quite tough for Boles. As one executive member told me: “In my view he is coming to the end of his time as our MP.”
But this development has baffled many observers in Westminster, where he is well-liked, admired for his personality, brains and manner. Out of all the turbulent Brexit rebels, some of whom have been far more vocal and disloyal, how come it is Boles who might be facing deselection?
The issue of Brexit is evidently the flashpoint. He has made little secret of his views and his dead-set opposition to No Deal – though he evidently feels he is unfairly being painted as an opponent of Brexit entirely, hence his statement’s headline: ‘What I really think about Brexit‘.
The constituency voted Leave, and the Conservative grassroots broke heavily in favour of Leave, too. The timing of Boles’s intervention against No Deal, coming later in the process, closer to Brexit Day, and smack in the middle of the Government’s troubles in the Commons, certainly hasn’t helped, making the MP a topical focus for Leavers’ anger.
There are some suggestions that the Grantham and Stamford association has become even more firmly anti-EU since the referendum, too. It has reportedly enjoyed one of the largest rises in membership of any Conservative association, and the MP’s defenders note that at least some of those newer members are former UKIP supporters, activists and even candidates. Cllr Foulkes, the branch chairman calling for a No Confidence vote, was a defector from UKIP – in an ironic turn of events, he was welcomed by Boles at the time to his new home.
Some movement of that sort has happened in many parts of the country as the Conservative Party has come to formally support Brexit. Boles notably challenged Arron Banks to “make my day” by attempting to get rid of him through infiltration yesterday, thereby framing the local row in that context, but it should be noted that there is little serious suggestion that Grantham’s influx is the product of Leave.EU’s much-touted but little-evidenced claims.
Beyond simply the issue of Brexit itself, some local members argue that the MP’s handling of his campaign has undermined his position. The threat to resign the whip alienated some who consider themselves moderates on the EU question, who might ordinarily have defended him, and even those who share his concerns about No Deal fret that his approach could aid Labour. It is hard, they say, to make a case for loyalty to a party colleague when that colleague also threatens to withdraw support for the government.
A difficult relationship
Even that doesn’t fully explain how the situation in Grantham and Stamford became so bad, however. MPs and their associations often disagree on questions of policy or tactics, and there are more troublesome MPs who are not facing such a serious situation. The difference is that this is a seat where the relationship between MP and association was already weakened by some long-standing issues.
“If feeling towards him was warmer generally in the association, people would say ‘oh, move on'”, one experienced activist argues, “but instead, he doesn’t have that electoral goodwill in the bank.”
Various members of the association cite a perceived absence from the constituency, not least as his home is in London. The refusal to move to the constituency has been a frustration for some since his selection – it “upset people almost beyond words”, one association member says. Boles has always argued that he, not his husband, does the job of MP, and therefore that his home life should not have to move to follow his work, but some local Tories still feel snubbed by the fact they have never even met their MP’s other half, for example.
More generally, while the MP can point to regular constituency surgeries, that physical absence has long frustrated his association. He’s “never here” and “really London-centric” were two criticisms made to me, while a councillor and agent in a neighbouring constituency was openly joking on Twitter this morning that it has “been about 50 days since he last visited his constituency.” When I put that number to a source in Boles’s association, the person replied “I’m surprised it’s that recently.”
Perhaps the reasons why Boles is liked in Westminster – his energy, his presence and his work propagating ideas – correlate with the reasons some in his association are less warm about him. Seeing their MP on the national stage underscores for some their annoyance at what they feel to be less enthusiasm for the more humdrum business of raising money and rallying the troops locally. A portion of the grassroots membership feel that when he does attend local events “he is itching to get away”. All this plays into the far wider feeling of tension between London and not-London in the country at large.
Will he hang on?
It’s still not certain that Grantham and Stamford will actually deselect its MP. Deselections are still quite rare; there were three in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and there have been two so far this decade, and incumbency still has its benefits. A number of factors could offer Boles some hope.
In some cases, CCHQ has deployed the weight of the party itself to try to smooth things over between MPs and their associations. From what I can gather, however, those levers have not been pulled in this case; the leadership is leaving him to fight on his own.
It is possible that Boles’s critics will overplay their hand. Any sign of bullying or ganging up on him could win him some sympathy, and people like an underdog. Furthermore, any suspicion that this is a case of a Tory being driven out by UKIP interlopers would certainly strengthen Boles’s position. Arron Banks can be relied upon to produce an approach that backfires, presumably hence Boles’s tweet highlighting threats from Leave.EU yesterday. And if anyone ambitious appears to be pushing for deselection in order to take the seat for themself, that too would aid his cause; at least one other deselection campaign in another seat has failed recently for exactly that reason.
Finally, of course, the outcome can be influenced by Boles himself. Playing for time might defuse a bit of the anger. While the association executive is pressing for a swift process, he would probably also benefit if he was able to delay proceedings, but ultimately it will come down to old-fashioned campaigning. Described to me as “a people person who doesn’t meet people”, if he turns the charm and abilities which have won fans in Westminster onto his local Party members, it’s not impossible that he could persuade enough of them to win a ballot, although the number of complaints suggests that would be an uphill struggle. Tonight’s meeting will be the first test of whether he can quell the criticism and assuage the concerns sufficiently to get through.
The big question, which nobody but he knows the answer to, is whether he intends to fight against deselection or not.