In politics, there is a basic test of seriousness: linguistic self-discipline. You should never provide the opposition with ammunition; never say anything which could be quoted against your own party. This is doubly true if you are a minister.
A few days ago, Nick Boles made one sensible point, though it was hardly a new one. For decades, the Tories have often been seen as the toffs’ party, neglectful of the interests of ordinary people. Mr Boles argued that even after eight years, David Cameron has failed to put that right.
There are three responses to that. First, it is an exaggeration. If Mrs Thatcher had been doing this well in the polls at this stage of a Parliament, she would have wondered what she was doing wrong.
Second, this government has succeeded in neutralising one of Labour’s principal weapons: the NHS. Of course, Labour will assert that the Tories have virtually destroyed the Health Service and that another Tory government would finish it off. But that claim has less and less credibility; Labour has a large hole in its armoury.
Third, has Nick Boles been paying any attention to the economy? Is he aware that we have had to endure the worst recession for seventy years and that millions of people have suffered a decline in real wages? Is he aware of the depth of economic anxiety throughout the country? In all these circumstances, it is a miracle that the governing party still has a serious chance of winning the next election.
If Mr Boles had his way, he would put that right. He believes that many voters see Tories as aliens. To persuade them that his fellow MPs did not arrive from outer space, he wants Tories to boast about homosexual marriage and to call themselves National Liberals.
Whatever view one takes about same-sex marriage, one point is surely self-evident. Few people regard it as the most important issue facing the country (and they are all friends of Nick Boles’s). The Boles therapy would work well if the average voter was a 28 year-old account director at Bartle, Saatchi and Metrosexual, already earning six figures and entirely relaxed about what his friends put up their noses or one anothers’ bottoms. Nick Boles would be the ideal candidate for Groucho Club Central.
But let us assume that the average voter is a thirty-five year old, on about a third of that salary. He is told that the economy is growing. In his household, the only sign of growth is higher bills. He does not know much about the Gove reforms; he does hate what he hears about the local comp. He is worried about crime and immigration. Although he likes the welfare curbs, he believes that they are not tough enough. You can still earn almost as much for a week’s idling as he does for a week’s work.
He does not think much of politicians as a species. He will take a lot of persuading that this lot understand him and his family. He finds Nigel Farage amusing. So how does the Tory party win him round? Homosexual marriage – come off it, Nick. You talk about aliens. Which planet are you from?
When one considers the profound demographic and cultural changes which this country has undergone over the past fity years, there is an obvious conclusion. The British are a profoundly tolerant people. Even so, some millions of them do believe that their values and decencies are under threat, from a political and cultural elite which holds them in contempt. It is among that elite where one will find contemporary British intolerance.
Nick Boles is not only guilty of intolerance and loose talk. He has been given a difficult and fascinating portfolio. We know that there has to be housing development in the South-East, where the jobs are. But how can we convince the existing residents that this can be achieved without wrecking their neighbourhood? There are answers: in-fill, brownfield sites, redundant agricultural buildings: above all. judicious bribery. But all this is complex. It needs thinking through: explanation, persuasion, patience. All Mr Boles offers is petulance. He seems to enjoy dismissing real people’s anxieties.
He also gives the impression that everything has come easily to him. So the couple who have worked hard for many years, to earn the money to buy Honeysuckle cottage – what are they to feel when this ministerial posh boy is disdainful of them and their way of life?
The charge is sometimes made that the Tory party is full of arrogant members of the jeunesse doree, educated beyond their abilities, taking entitlement for granted, endlessly self-indulgent, drawn to politics merely as an outlet for vanity. That is a slur – which is not to say that it is always untrue.