Nick Boles: “This is my swansong. I’m on my way out”
Furious at his party’s intransigence on Brexit, Nick Boles spectacularly resigned the Conservative whip earlier this month. As the dust settles from his decision, the former minister says he feels no regrets, and is prepared for his “swansong” from politics. He talks to Sebastian Whale
Nick Boles burst into his office. After changing into a pair of jeans, he took out his phone and wrote a tweet: “I am resigning the Conservative whip with immediate effect. The Conservative Party has shown itself to be incapable of compromise so I will sit as an Independent Progressive Conservative.”
With that, he collected his belongings. Fortunately, nobody spoke to him on the bus home. “I might not have been in a fit state to respond,” he says. He lay on his sofa and watched the messages flood in. “There was that slight sort of, ‘oh my god, what have I done’, which is inevitable, especially when you do something spur of the moment like that.”
Though choked, there were no tears.
An hour earlier, he had been sitting in the Chamber waiting for the results of the second round of indicative votes. He had spent days lobbying colleagues to back Common Market 2.0, which would see the UK pursue a Norway-style Brexit. With the Labour party and the SNP whipping in favour, he was hoping to reach 290 votes with the support of around 60 Tory MPs. In the event, it was defeated by 282 votes to 261. Boles knew his party (and several supporters of a People’s Vote) had scuppered its chances. He called a point of order, and announced he was resigning the whip.
Though the act was spontaneous, Boles had been reflecting on the decision for some time. After facing a vote of no confidence from his local constituency party in Grantham and Stamford, he resigned from the association. He had fallen out of favour due to his commitment to Common Market 2.0 – which would see the UK enter a customs union and single market – and his cross-party work in seeking to prevent no deal. After months of angst, everything became clear that Monday evening in the Commons chamber.
“What I felt that vote provided was the final confirmation that it was not a party in the mood for compromise,” he tells me in the office that he returned to that evening. “The irony is, of course, ever since then the Prime Minister has been pursuing a compromise and we’ll see where she gets with that.”
While he doubts whether Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn harbour the political dexterity to achieve compromise, Boles is relatively optimistic the pair will come to some sort of resolution. “She needs it for her place in history and for the justification of her premiership, really. Jeremy Corbyn needs it because he recognises that a second referendum, for which there’s obviously great and growing support from the Labour party, will, whatever else happens, destroy his chances of becoming prime minister,” he says.
But the art of finding the middle ground, he laments, is all but lost from the political scene. “I’m afraid through this whole process, and it’s what’s been for me personally most alienating about the Brexit process, is that almost everybody has radicalised,” he says.
“It’s helped me discover that one of the most important defining instincts that I have is a suspicion – a dislike of – extreme, inflexible, ideological positions. I really hate it. It’s almost always wrong, and it’s no way to run a country, and certainly not a mature, big, relatively powerful, relatively prosperous and relatively free and complicated country like this one.”
Less than three years ago, Boles was a government minister. Considered one of the Notting Hill set, he was a leading face in David Cameron and George Osborne’s Conservative party. Has he heard from either of them since quitting the Tories? “I’ve heard from almost everybody who you might have expected,” he replies. “The few days immediately afterwards were a little strange and I felt slightly discombobulated. Now I feel certainly no regrets and it’s beginning to feel more normal.”
That journey from the frontbench to an independent MP in such a short space of time is, in and of itself, remarkable. Insofar as Boles is concerned, it’s more a case of it’s you, not me. He points to the referendum and the election of Theresa May (which “I never supported”), the snap election and the PM’s subsequent Brexit strategy. “What that has done is it’s accelerated a process of the Conservative party becoming defined by Brexit. Increasingly, its sole purpose in life seems to be Brexit,” he says.
Until recently, Boles argues, the party has been “dominated” by the ERG. This process has increasingly isolated “leading lights” and “standard bearers” in the Tory party such as Anna Soubry, Sam Gyimah and Dominic Grieve, and taken the Conservatives away from the “set of attitudes” that secured a parliamentary majority in 2015, he adds. “That is a very sad journey and in some ways, it’s a strange one in that you think, why on earth would you do such a thing? If you were that political party, why would you do this when it was so clear what was the formula that won you power previously.”
Is it all May’s fault? “No. It’s very largely Theresa May’s fault. Actions have consequences. She made choices.” Did Boles know how her leadership would transpire? “Many of her deficiencies as a prime minister I did anticipate – the inflexibility and her inability to communicate. Actually, oddly, her indecisiveness,” he answers.
But he did not see her coming out for a “hardline ideological version of Brexit”. “She persuaded herself she needed to be more Brexity than Brexiters, more Brexiter than thou. It was a massive, not just a miscalculation, but a moral error. One that has come to determine and define everything that’s happened.”
But how does he look back on the decision to hold the referendum in the first place? “I wish I’d advised against it at the time,” he concedes. “I was not an important figure, and not influential on the decision, but I nevertheless did take the view that it was an unavoidable idea. That if we didn’t do it, then we could kiss goodbye to winning the 2015 election. Now, you can reasonably ask a very painful question, wouldn’t it have been better for Britain if we hadn’t won the 2015 election and hadn’t had a referendum. I rather hate thinking about that, because I don’t know the answer.”
Boles, who read PPE at Oxford, had an eclectic life before parliament. He founded a DIY supply business, Longwall Holdings Limited. In 2002, he set up Policy Exchange and served as the think tank’s director until 2007. He withdrew from the race to become the Tories’ candidate for the 2008 London mayoral elections after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was elected to parliament in 2010 and served first as a planning minister in 2012 before moving to the DfE two years later, where he stayed until May ousted him upon entering No10. In October 2016, he announced that he had a brain tumour.
While many have expressed dismay at Boles’ decision to quit, others have questioned whether he truly belonged in the Tory party. A Spectator article by Rod Liddle questioned ‘In what possible way was Nick Boles ever a Conservative’.
“In a funny way, he’s got a point,” Boles says. “What people like him – and I can think of many in my association – define as a proper Tory, I never was. But I never pretended to be. Right from the get-go, my view was if that’s what you want, don’t vote for me. But if that’s what you want, you can kiss goodbye to ever being in government again. The Tory party has to be bigger than that.”
If he were still a Conservative MP, Boles says he would be concerned about the upcoming leadership contest. Which potential Brexiteer candidate would he be most concerned by? “I’m not going to name names. You know who the candidates are, and I wouldn’t be happy with any of them from that wing. What I would look for is, firstly, people who’ve demonstrated a willingness to compromise. Secondly, to be honest, if I was still in the party, I’d be making the argument for somebody unimplicated in the whole saga. A fresh face, somebody younger, newer, with new energy, new ideas, a new voice.”
A Tom Tugendhat, for example? “Quite possibly. I’m a great fan of Tom. I don’t whether he’ll run, I don’t know whether he’s ready. But that kind of a person.”
He adds: “For my personal taste, Ruth Davidson would be the perfect candidate. She’s not available, but whoever can come closest to Ruth both in terms of political views but also in terms of personal presence and charisma and authenticity, that for me would be the best outcome, both for the Conservative party and for the country.”
If she asked, would you return to the Tories? “Well, Ruth is not going to become Prime Minister anytime soon, because she’s got a new baby and she’s trying to become first minister of Scotland. So, it’s not just a hypothetical question, it’s an impossible hypothetical question. So, there’s no answer to that.”
Would anyone bring you back? “It’s very unlikely. I’m not a great believer of going back to anything. Throughout my life, I’ve never been back to school, back to university, or back to anything. I’m a great believer in pressing on.”
He adds: “This is my swansong, I’m on my way out. But I’m very happy to wish anybody who does come from that wing of the party and who is running the best of British and as far as I can, be helpful if they want my help. I’m not in the market for becoming a Conservative again.”
For the time being at least, Boles will not be tempted to join The Independent Group, now known as Change UK, for their vehemently pro-second referendum policy. What if the party develops its stance in the future? “I rule nothing out, because what’s the point of ruling things out. I don’t anticipate any circumstances in which I join them, because they have defined themselves very consciously as a party that stands for one thing which I don’t agree with. So, it’s a bit hard to see how you get around that.”
Boles, who chairs the APPG on Assisted Dying, plans to spend his remaining years as an MP working on cross-party initiatives. “That’s what I’ve been doing for the last nine months, both with the Cooper-Letwin process, but also with Common Market 2.0. I’ve really, really enjoyed it. For all of the horrors of Brexit, it’s been the most rewarding experience,” he says.
He categorically does not want a crack at becoming Speaker and absolutely “never, never, never” will become a member of the House of Lords. Boles, then, seems resigned to the fate that his recent decision has bestowed upon him. Does he not think his parliamentary career will come to a premature close?
“No, I don’t really. My dad had three careers. He moved into his final career, which was a sort of semi-retirement career, taking over the family farm aged 58. My brother has just retired from a job in industry to the same family farm aged 58.
“At the next election, assuming it takes place when it’s due to, I’ll be 56. I’ll go and do one other thing – god knows what.”