Nick Boles is a modernisation hero: brave, original, independent-minded, witty, loyal and far too good for the provincial, scheming, purple-flavoured reactionaries of Grantham and Stamford’s Conservative Association.
Nick Boles is a egomaniacal poseur: a snooty, unstable, metro outsider who first looked down his nose at, and since has terminally let down, loyal and good-hearted activists who raised money, made calls, tramped streets and knocked on doors to get him elected.
You are hearing both versions at the moment. And since Boles isn’t short of allies and admirers in the media, probably more of the first than the second.
As a friend of both, we are barred from taking sides. So, as friends sometimes do, let us shape-shift into the role of marriage guidance counsellor – or commentator, at least. And say right at the start that, at the heart of this story, is neither a infiltration-led putsch nor an establishment stitch-up, but a relationship that went horribly wrong.
It’s important to understand that the Association came to this marriage scarred, as those who enter second marriages often do. Its first spouse, Quentin Davies, had suddenly gone bonkers in late middle age, and taken it into his head to run off with Gordon Brown. Davies was quite an establishment sort of chap, previously a diplomat and banker. So, in his different way, is Boles – a former Kennedy Scholar and think-tank head. At any rate, the Association went straight from the one to the other.
At first, all seems to have gone well enough. Boles’ career at Westminster went smoothly – almost swimmingly: he didn’t quite make the Cabinet, but became a very senior Minister of State, much admired for his bold ideas on planning and apprenticeships. But he had a way of skiing off-piste. For example, he called for the reinvention of the National Liberals. This didn’t happen – but the Conservatives won the 2015 election without them, anyway. He backed Remain in the EU referendum and his pro-Leave friend, Michael Gove, for the Tory leadership afterwards. Up to this point, the local Association seems to have found their local MP’s adventures more stimulating than alarming.
Then Boles got very seriously ill with cancer. For a while, he was a hero all round, wrenching himself from his hospital bed in order to vote for Article 50. But even as his health recovered, thank goodness, the relationship deteriorated.
Every serious deselection attempt we know of has a back story. EU policy may be front of stage, but something else usually lurks at the back, tangled up with the scenery, wires, and lighting. Nearly always, as in this case, it is the claim that the local MP isn’t in the constituency as often as he should be.
Such roughs are almost always smoothed over. It is a cackhanded MP who cannot grease his way back into the affections of his activists. And a truculent Association that is not prepared to give that MP the benefit of the doubt. We suggest neither that Boles is the first nor the Association the second, but tensions somehow rose rather than receded. It is as though the Association, or at least much of its leadership, was set on getting shot of Boles; and as though Boles – from early on the wrangle – was set on getting shot of it, in return.
Mark Wallace, ConservativeHome’s Boles & Grantham Correspondent, put his finger on the nub of the issue in January. “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.”
At any rate, highlights from the domestic tiff include Boles opposing No Deal and Philip Sagar, the Association’s Chairman, supporting it if necessary. Boles said that he would resign the Conservative whip if this would be required to block the move. (Which, as we now know, it wasn’t.) His Chairman said the threat was “unpatriotic”. In our view, the Association might have lived with Boles’ attachment to Norway-then-Canada, sorry, Norway Plus, sorry, Common Market 2.0. After all, there are plenty of other Tory MPs who are pushing the scheme. None that we know of faces a serious deselection push. But in none, perhaps, has the relationship between MP and Association run so deep into the sand.
Anyway, the breakdown gathered pace. The Association Executive called a special meeting; resolved to ask Boles to apply to be the Conservative candidate at the next election, and planned – very clearly – to deny him that privilege. Boles told them to bog off – well, not in quite so many words, but that was the sum of his response. He was under no obligation under Party rules to play ball. And (please note) Downing Street, CCHQ and the Whips Office have backed him up throughout.
As is sometimes the case when marriages start to go bust, one of the spouses began to be seen with third parties downturn. Boles tweeted that he and other Tory MPs would work with the opposition to stop No Deal. That they had learned to “ignore” whips, “shrug off” deselection attempts, and work with “friends” from the other side of the chamber. He warned that if May backtracked on commitments that he supported she would “forefeit the confidence of the House of Commons”. That sounded a bit like a threat to vote with Labour to bring the Government down. He dined with the devil – or rather met with Jeremy Corbyn, to discuss Norway Plus. He said that Jess Phillips would make “a great Prime Minister”. For local activists who have clocked who she is, this may have been the unkindest cut of all.
And so to last weekend. It is important to note that Boles was not deselected. He had fended off the Association’s executive – and CCHQ was backing him up.
Rather, he has gone voluntarily. As his letter of explanation put it: “I am not willing to do what would be necessary to restore a reasonable working relationship with a group of people whose views and values are so much at odds with my own.” He has packed his bags and departed the house – leaving a raging spouse to trash the dress, jump up and down on the wedding photos, dial Canada’s speaking clock from the smartphone he forgot to take with him, and slash holes in the crotches of his underpants.
Where does that leave the friends of both? Thinking, at the end – what a waste, on both sides: of time, promise, Boles’ talents, activists’ commitment and (who knows?) even a kind of love.
Boles has not left the Conservative whip, let alone the Conservative Party. There is no obligation we know of which requires the local MP to join his local Association. He could always seek a candidacy elsewhere. But were he so minded, would another Association be intrepid enough to take him? As for Grantham and Stamford, our advice, for what it’s worth, is: next time round, after Davies and Boles, select someone reassuringly dull.