I didn’t see which MP it was who cried out, “Nick, don’t go!” as Nick Boles left his seat on the government side of the House of Commons, after confirming, his voice cracking with emotion, that he could no longer sit as a Conservative.
It was one of those moments that lit up an underlying shift in politics: the Conservative Party is slowly becoming a narrower church, and yet there are still many people in it who realise the dangers of this trend.
Boles will be accused of pique in quitting the party because he lost the vote on his compromise Brexit plan last night. His proposal, called Common Market 2.0, which would mean that Britain would stay in the single market and a customs union after leaving the EU, was an attempt to bring together a nation and a Commons divided by Brexit. It would take us out of the political structures of the EU but keep us in the economic ones – an attempt to revive the “common market” to which the British people assented in 1975. And an attempt to bring together the 52 per cent and the 48 per cent of 2016.
And Boles made progress last night, gaining an extra 72 votes for his plan since the first indicative votes on Wednesday. But he lost ground among his Tory colleagues: just 33 of them voted with him this time, four fewer than last week.
So he is off to sit on the other side of the chamber as an independent progressive conservative. The dismay of some of his colleagues is genuine; they realise how damaging his departure is to their side of the party.
At its crudest, as Paul Goodman of the Conservative Home website pointed out within minutes, it means one fewer vote for Michael Gove, Boles’s friend, in the imminent Tory leadership election.
Boles’s defection is also an example of what might be called the “Prentice effect”, after Reg Prentice, the Labour MP who defected to the Tories in the 1970s. Labour moderates defended Prentice against the threat of deselection by supporters of Tony Benn. The Bennites accused Prentice of being basically a Tory and it turned out that they were right.
Boles had fallen out with his local Tory party, who think that he is not true to the party’s values and now he has appeared to prove them right. Which is ironic, because he supported the prime minister’s Brexit deal which, according to the latest Conservative Home poll, is now backed by most party members.
You can see why Tory party members might be unhappy with Dominic Grieve or Sam Gyimah, former ministers who have voted consistently against the deal because they want to stop Brexit. But for them to turn on Boles, who supports the government and was trying hard to find ways to help it succeed, only widens the civil war in the party.
As ever, conflict within a party is emotionally traumatic. “God I hate this miserable party,” one anonymous Tory MP was quoted as saying last night.
That inflicts a cost on MPs and activists, and forces them to make the same calculation as Labour opponents of Jeremy Corbyn: should they stay and fight and be miserable; or do they leave the field, and feel better but possibly guilty about letting their enemies control the party?
Nick Boles has made his choice, and the Tory party is worse off for it.
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