Nick Boles calls for National Liberal revival AKA Nick Boles invents a safe space for nice people well away from the Tories

by Stephen Tall on November 19, 2013

nick bolesNick Boles is the Conservative planning minister, one of the few Tories to take the housing crisis seriously and to risk unpopularity within his own party by making clear we need to build more homes.

He has, for instance, said ‘The sum of human happiness that is created by the houses that are being built is vastly greater than the economic, social and environmental value of a field that was growing wheat or rape’ knowing this would be crudely characterised as wanting to ‘concrete the countryside’. He has developed ways of encouraging communities to increase the supply of housing while promoting localism (for which I made him a Liberal Hero of the Week in January).

In short, he’s the kind of Tory we could (in the words of Margaret Thatcher, whose home town of Grantham he represents) do business with. He is also a former director of the think-tank Policy Exchange, interested in ideas, with a lively, inquiring mind. So I was quite curious to read his lecture today, ‘Which party should a liberal vote for in 2015?’

To be honest, it’s a pretty disappointing effort.

Its headline-grabbing idea is that the Conservatives should create an affiliate body of National Liberals which would provide a home for existing Tory members with liberal views and as a recruiting tool for “new supporters who might initially balk at the idea of calling themselves Conservative”.

That admission – that liberal-minded Conservatives may well find the current Tory party too toxic to want to be identified with – is in itself telling. It says a lot about the failure of the Tory modernisation project that the best Nick Boles can now hope for is that he can invent a National Liberal quarantine for ‘Cameroonian’ recruits where they won’t have to rub up against the reality of his unreconstructed party. If the Tory Party was once the Anglican church at prayer, it now increasingly resembles the golf club at full bray.

Nick Boles is more intelligent than this speech suggests. It is riddled with lazy generalisations (“in the last year the Liberal Democrat Party has shown that it is not a liberal party but a statist party of the soft left”) and glib insults like labelling Nick Clegg “a principle-free zone” – a silly remark given Nick Clegg’s personal ratings among Conservative / Lib Dem waverers are pretty positive.

And its attempts to air-brush out the highly illiberal Conservative record in this parliament – from trying to scrap housing benefit for under-25s to the junking of Lords reform to attempts to ditch the Human Rights Act – does him little credit. The common purpose of the Coalition was fatally damaged within its first year not by the Lib Dems, but by the savaging of Nick Clegg sanctioned by Tory high command to ensure the defeat of electoral reform. They may well regard that as a price well worth paying, but that’s when the Coalition began to unravel.

Nick Boles’ speech reads like transference, projecting his own disappointments at the Tory party’s never-ending lurch to the right onto the Lib Dems. Indeed, it’s argument is so thin I can’t help wondering if there’s something in Richard Morris’s suspicion its prime motive was to entice the recently sacked Jeremy Browne to defect.

It’s a shame because there is an interesting speech to be made about the prospects for a National Liberal party, one which brings together the Orange Bookers, the Blairites and the Cameroons. There would be disagreements over civil liberties, but on the economy, public services, the environment and Europe they would have more in common with each other than with their current parties. Tribal loyalties, combined with our stultifying electoral system which inhibits new parties, means such an alliance is unlikely to come to pass.

One group it would appeal to is young people, increasingly economically liberal and socially libertarian as The Economist noted this summer. But they’re also the group least likely to see the point in voting – which, paradoxically, is why they don’t get the politicians they want.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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