By Matt.Ross

08 Feb 2012

Nick Boles is a key Tory thinker: a man who devised many flagship policies and prepared his party for government. But Matt Ross finds him refreshingly straight-talking as he discusses politics, policymaking and the civil service.

In early 2010 Nick Boles was the head of the Conservatives’ implementation team, charged with drawing up the party’s detailed plans for government. He wanted to arrange pre-election meetings between David Cameron’s frontbenchers and the permanent secretaries of the departments they were shadowing – but both his own leader and the Labour prime minister were reluctant.

“David Cameron was absolutely paranoid about being seen to be, as he put it, measuring the curtains,” Boles recalls. “He was very reluctant to be getting into anything that could be misinterpreted.” As for Labour’s Gordon Brown, “he was inclined to interpret anything like that as an attempt by the civil service to engineer the return of the ‘evil Tories’.” Nonetheless, Boles did eventually get the meetings agreed, and sat in as the departmental chiefs met their would-be bosses.

“What I found interesting was that some of my colleagues spent the entire meeting talking at the permanent secretary about what they wanted to do, which I found a slightly curious approach,” Boles recalls. “The others – the ones that I thought were most effective – really didn’t say very much, but they asked lots of questions about the department, and about which of our policies the permanent secretaries thought would be difficult to implement. Those were the ones that I thought would be able to form a good working relationship quickly, because they had the humility to ask rather than just to announce.”

And have subsequent events proved Boles right? Has the latter group indeed enjoyed more success in delivering policies effectively? “There is an interesting correlation between that pattern [of interactions], and those who’ve been more successful and those who’ve had more problems along the way,” he replies with a smile.

He won’t name names, of course – but Boles is unusually candid for a backbencher, most of whom are more interested in knocking their opponents than in contemplating the elements of effective governance. Analytical, thoughtful, and retaining a certain distance from the partisan fray, Boles found his first passion in policy rather than party politics. “I have quite a lot of family members who’ve been in politics and they’ve all been Tories, so party politics is not something weird and extraterrestrial, as it is for most people,” he comments. “But my interest was always more in policy, and I always imagined that I’d be more likely to become an international, IMF, World Bank-type civil servant.”

Nonetheless, Boles caught the politics “bug” in 1988, when he spent a summer helping his brother-in-law Dudley Fishburn to fight a close London by-election. “I tried to avoid [politics] for quite a number of years afterwards, and went into business and a number of other things, but it had entered the bloodstream,” he recalls. And what exactly is that ‘bug’?

“It’s weird, because it isn’t rational: let’s face it, politicians are more often hated and despised than they are admired and respected,” he replies. “And much of the political process – and certainly the election process – is sort of soul-destroying and unintelligent. But there’s something about the contact with people and the thrill of the chase; something about trying to persuade somebody that you’re the person with the answers. You know they’re not that interested, and that they don’t have much time and are quite sceptical about politicians as a breed – so it’s a challenge.” He pauses, and gives a big grin: “I’m afraid this is cod psychology, but it is seduction every time. You’re trying to seduce every voter a little bit, which is why Bill Clinton was better at it than anybody’s ever been!”

Himself seduced by the political game, Boles eventually won a seat as a Westminster councillor and grew close to key Tory modernisers, including current education secretary Michael Gove and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. In 2001 he founded the influential think tank Policy Exchange, which devised many flagship Tory policies including the Office of Budget Responsibility, the Green Investment Bank, elected police commissioners and the academies expansion. Asked the key to developing policies that win the backing of senior Tories, he says that concepts must be simple, and must “go with the grain of human nature. Almost everything is about aligning incentives, so that people end up doing the things you want them to.” Electing police commissioners, for example, forces senior officers to “worry about what people think rather than what the Home Office is telling them”, while introducing a ‘pupil premium’ incentivises schools to accept kids from tough backgrounds.

In 2007, David Cameron recruited Boles to run his implementation team – leading, a couple of years later, to those meetings between permanent secretaries and aspiring secretaries of state. Because the contacts didn’t begin until early 2010, Boles says, they only played a small part in shaping Tory policies; but they were helpful in setting timetables, and in alerting civil servants to the Tories’ top priorities. More importantly, they were “incredibly useful” in bringing people face to face: “It was, frankly, about sniffing each other’s bottoms and working out the measure of the man or woman, and trying to build some kind of a working relationship,” he comments.

Asked how pre-election contacts between officials and the Opposition could be improved, Boles argues that the talks should be conducted “more thoroughly, and I certainly think it’d be helpful if it was done for longer”: the next round should begin in 2014, he says, adding that the arrival of fixed-term parliaments should aid their establishment as a “constitutional convention”. An Institute for Government fellow, he cites a recent IfG report that called for a team of civil servants to be assigned to the Opposition 18 months before each election. Whether such a posting would be “a career enhancer or a career retarder” for officials would probably depend on the election result, he adds; to avoid blighting people’s careers, he suggests that “it might be something that you’d ask retiring civil servants to do as a final job”.

Enough, though, of process; what were Boles’ first impressions of the permanent secretaries? Very variable, he replies: some came across as candid and helpful, “exuding confidence and a willingness to be indiscreet; a willingness to say: ‘Yes, this bit’s not going very well,’ or: ‘Frankly, we’ve screwed that bit up, but this is the real challenge and this is how it’s going to work’. Whereas others were bristling with correctness and process and procedure and: ‘Oh, I’m not sure if I could do that, I’ll have to ask the cabinet secretary’.”

Looking across Whitehall, Boles comments that “some of the most impressive people one meets are civil servants – in terms of pure intellect but also in sly political skills; a personality that projects; an ability to lead an organisation – and some of my more senior colleagues have been surprised and impressed by that.” He’s pleased that “the Sir Humphreyness is sort of dead, thank God”; that he doesn’t hear much of “the endless, rather elegant circumlocutions to avoid saying what you really mean”. There is, he adds, a “huge range” in the quality of Britain’s civil servants, but incoming ministers have in general appreciated officials’ readiness to turn their policy ideas into concrete realities.

The incoming Tory ministers’ ability to work with their Liberal Democrat colleagues has, of course, been just as important to the new government’s operation, and Boles – an outspoken fan of coalition government – is full of enthusiasm for the professionalism and effectiveness of senior Lib Dems. “The coalition’s worked very well because people, once in a job, have got stuck in,” he says, picking out Ed Davey, Danny Alexander, Sarah Teather and Steve Webb for particular praise. “Obviously at a higher level there’s been some political grandstanding on both sides, but given that it’s our first experience of coalition in this country for a long time, it’s pretty amazing how stable it is and how much it’s been able to do; how radical it is. You’d think that in a coalition each party would blunt the radicalism of the other, but if anything we’ve each given permission to the other to implement radical policies.”
Challenged on this picture of harmony, Boles accepts that the meeting of minds doesn’t extend far beyond the parties’ leaderships: the coalition is like “a Rodin statue, where the heads are kissing and the upper bodies are very closely interlocked, and the further you go down the further apart they become,” he says. “There’s a sense that the real divisions are between the backbenchers, because we don’t have much of a reason to hang out together.” The European financial crisis has also driven a wedge between the parties: “We thought nothing was going to happen in Europe, and so this one area where we were completely in different places wasn’t going to come to the front,” he says, admitting that his initial optimism about the prospects for a consensual, cooperative coalition may have been “a bit naïve”.

Nonetheless, Boles gives little ground on one of his most contentious beliefs: that the Tories and Lib Dems should get out of each other’s way in key battlegrounds come the next election, and aim for another coalition. The polls might suggest that the Lib Dems are taking all the flak for unpopular coalition policies, he says, but “they always end up doing better in elections than their poll rating over the previous few years.” What’s more, he confesses to being “completely astonished by our poll ratings. I think most Tories are. I suspect the prime minister is. And it may not last.” Favourable Tory scores in the polls are an “expression of respect and a fundamental agreement with our analysis” of the debt crisis and its solution, he says, but not an “expression of affection”.

Given that “the path to a majority remains, even with the boundary changes, immensely challenging” – and that “the worst of all possible worlds would be a [Tory] majority of ten: look what happened to poor John Major” – Boles hopes that local parties “might look at David Laws in Yeovil and even Chris Huhne in Eastleigh and ask ourselves: ‘Do we really, really want to run the risk of a Labour government by opposing these people in these seats?’ Maybe we can’t bridge the gap, but I wouldn’t want to rule it out.”

For Boles, many coalition policies are hitting the “sweet spot” – and that, for him, means that they’re boosting Britain’s productivity. In a speech delivered last week to the Tory Reform Group (TRG), he warned that growing global competition in skilled work such as engineering and software design is putting European salaries and working benefits under ever-growing pressure; the government, he argued, must concentrate on improving UK workers’ ability to add value.

As befits his background as a purveyor of radical ideas – and his current position as a backbencher, free to float concepts that don’t fit with party policy – Boles put forward a number of suggestions as to how the coalition could do this, including the introduction of a land value tax (LVT). By taxing commercial and unused land, the LVT would raise revenues that could be used to reduce companies’ national insurance contributions – thus shifting the burden of taxation from jobs to capital assets, encouraging job creation and pushing landowners to make their properties more productive.

Boles acknowledges, however, that LVT doesn’t have “a huge chance of being adopted any time soon – I think it’s a long way off.” Much closer, perhaps, is another of his ideas: exempting foreign students from the government’s immigration cap. In his 2010 book Which Way’s Up?, Boles argued that those awarded student or working visas should pay a deposit which they’d forfeit if they broke the law, overstayed or, in the case of working visas, failed to pay tax.

In his TRG speech, Boles put a figure on the deposit – £5000 – but he also argued that the cap risks damaging universities. “We must not allow necessary action to root out widespread abuse of the student visa system to harm one of Britain’s most important sources of future export earnings – our university sector,” he said. “There is now some evidence that this is happening.”

Boles’ solution is simple: exempting students from the cap. “If you look at any of the research about what British people object to in immigration, they don’t mind students,” he argues. “So let’s have a cap on what people care about, and let the university sector take as many foreign students as it possibly can.” Has this idea got more legs than LVT? “Yes, I think so. LVT is a long-term campaign; some of these ideas may be a bit quicker.” From a guy as close to the Tory leadership’s thinking as Boles, his answer is significant. And there’s another potentially productivity-boosting policy for which he’s keen to bang the drum: the introduction of mayors in Britain’s biggest regional cities.

“One of the towns in my constituency, Grantham, has really suffered from the fact that for 20, 30 years, nobody has taken it by the scruff of the neck and said: ‘This is what we need to do to make this town thrive and prosper’,” he says. “You need individuals to be able to break through the inertia and make things happen.” He’s far from confident, though, that voters will back the introduction of mayors in this year’s referendums. “I don’t know how many we’ll win. It’s hard; turnout will be low,” he says. “We should look at these things in a grand sweep. If this year delivers a mayor in Liverpool and possibly Birmingham, then I think that in 30 years, every city in the country will have one.”

The campaign to introduce mayors faces the opposition of all the Tory city councils. Asked why that is, Boles first replies: “How many MPs would vote for an elected presidency?” So why don’t the Labour city councils oppose mayors? “There’s a clue in the name: we’re conservatives,” he says. “We don’t instinctively believe in constitutional meddling, new-fangled ideas, foreign institutions. That’s why we’re Conservatives.”

The fact is, Boles doesn’t seem very conservative – at least in the small-c sense. But he argues that “in every modern Conservative there’s a blend of Tory and Whig, and I’m more Whig than I am conservative – as was Margaret Thatcher.” City mayors, he argues, return to a British tradition of having “strongly independent local communities and cities”; a tradition fostered by “the [Joseph] Chamberlains and others, who built the great Victorian cities. So I can spin it to you that this isn’t about the future; it’s about the best of the past.”

Well, he can spin it that way – but Boles is clearly a reformer; clearly someone who thinks about the needs of the future more than he harks back to the glories of the past. Asked to sketch out how the civil service needs to change, he puts himself “firmly in the radical camp on civil service reform.” Technical skills must be more highly valued, he says; Whitehall must ditch “this mad idea that the only way to go up this endless spiral of promotion is to move into another job”, and learn to promote people within their specialisms. Officials “must stick around long enough to own the results of what they’re working on”, he adds.

In fact, Boles argues that the civil service could learn a lot from management consultancies, which employ “specialists who know everything about a particular topic, and then form very loose teams on particular projects: they come together, get something through, then go off and form another group around something else.” Such a reform of working practices would be a big shift for civil servants, he acknowledges – but “the job has changed dramatically, and the way the civil service is run has got rather out of date.”

“So there are a lot of changes required,” he concludes, “but what’s good is that the raw material is there. I’m reasonably encouraged at the hints that one’s getting that quite a lot of the new generation leading the civil service are of the same mind. There seems to be an openness to making some quite radical changes, and I hope that the civil service as a whole will embrace them.”

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