WHEN people like former Skills and Equalities Minister Nick Boles start deserting their post, we know what direction the Conservative party is heading. Or do we?
A day after the MP for Grantham and Stamford washed his hands of a party which had “shown itself to be incapable of compromise”, Theresa May, announced that she was bringing the Opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to the negotiating table to broker a Brexit deal.
Clearly, her only hope now is to extend an olive branch to a man who has, until now, been her sworn enemy. However, it is important to differentiate between the actions of a Prime Minister in desperation and a party in disarray.
There are too many fissures in the Conservative party right now to count, but the departure of Boles highlights a profound one.
Unless events overtake him, Boles will continue to sit in the House of Commons as an Independent Progressive Conservative member, but reports from his constituency do not bode well.
The chief issue – and it is one which will resound in Yorkshire too – is that Boles supported the Remain campaign in the EU referendum but his constituents voted overwhelmingly (61 per cent) for Brexit. This is not a situation unique to Tory-held constituencies; plenty of Labour seats have also found themselves in the same invidious position.
However, it is particular pertinent to the Conservatives because the battle for the soul of the party sees the arch-Eurosceptics, led by the bombastic figure of Jacob Rees-Mogg, attempting to pull the party of government sharply towards the right.
Boles’ attempt to balance his own beliefs, and come up with a workable way to enact the Brexit his constituents wanted, resulted in his proposed ‘Norway’-style compromise between the UK and the EU. But his motion failed to find favour. As the prospect of no deal at all became ever-more likely, he did what he said he was going to do and resigned the Conservative whip.
Whatever you think of Boles, you cannot deny that at least he stuck to his principles, which is more than a whole bunch of his Westminster colleagues have done. Until now, he’s not been one of those politicians you immediately recognise. Unless that is, you remember him being wheeled into Parliament to vote on the crucial motion to trigger Article 50 with a surgical mask over his face. This was when Boles was undergoing chemotherapy for a tumour found in his head. It was also his second brush with serious life-threatening illness in just under a decade – he was diagnosed as suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007.
As he told one interviewer, serious illness gives you a different perspective on politics. “I’m even less inclined than I was before to edit what I think in order to stop a row,” he said.
I’ve always kept an eye out for Boles because many years ago, in a different life, he would be the one person I naturally warmed to at drinks parties.
What I didn’t realise then was that those soirees, held at the apartment of a friend and newspaper colleague, were the launchpad for what became known as the ‘Notting Hill’ group of young, ambitious, metropolitan Tories, including David Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Gove.
The Boles I met back then was the very best kind of Tory – sociable, courteous, interested in using his privilege to make a difference (the Winchester and Oxford-educated son of a former head of the National Trust served as a local councillor in London) and tolerant, given that he was openly homosexual and is now one half of a civil partnership.
And as my own then-husband developed a serious illness, I watched from the sidelines as he performed the seemingly impossible act of juggling public life with daily hospital appointments.
So, I have a lot of sympathy for a man who should still be forming the vanguard of a modernising Conservative party, and whose personal struggles provide a touchstone with ordinary people.
However, the outgoing chair of the local Conservative Association, Phil Sagar, has wasted no time in expressing his trenchant views, telling one newspaper that Boles was too ‘London-centric’.
This may well be the case, but it doesn’t take a political genius to work out that what Mr Sagar also means is that the local MP disagreed completely with the views of his constituents over Europe.
Meanwhile, it will not have escaped your notice that Nick Boles’s Grantham constituency was the birthplace of another Conservative politician who stuck doggedly to her principles – Margaret Thatcher. Quite what she would have made of the Brexit debacle, or indeed of Nick Boles, can only be left to the imagination. What is certain, however, is that she would not have been impressed by what is happening to the party she led.