Yesterday’s removal of Conservative London Assembly member and chair Andrew Boff from his party’s conference in Manchester for objecting to Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s inflammatory speech was a clarifying moment in several ways.
It demonstrated an extreme intolerance. As heckles go, Boff’s was small and mild – an objection from the floor to Braverman attacking what she called “gender ideology”, something Boff calls a fiction.
His impertinence earned him no gentle warning not to overdo it, let alone the reasonable leeway for dissent British tradition allows. Instead, he was instantly escorted from the premises by, among others, police officers, and stripped of his conference pass. Braverman and the Tories currently pose as protectors of free speech. This was a strange way of showing it.
Suitably, Boff’s protest was against the new intolerance infecting his party, which Braverman personifies. Speaking to broadcasters outside, he displayed impressive sang-froid, expressing himself with feeling but not at the expense of eloquence. What had upset him about the Home Secretary’s address? “The scapegoating of gay people,” he replied. “We shouldn’t pick on vulnerable people in order to get votes.” He describing Braverman’s words as “disgusting”, and adding, rather sadly, “there’s been a lot of it”.
There certainly has. The Tories’ desperate descent into scaremongering, bigotry, divisiveness and deception – see David Aaronovitch’s dismantling of Braverman’s misuse of statistics – seems terminally advanced. Their conference is described by Rafael Behr as “a festival of complaint about the condition of Britain undisturbed by contrition for having presided over its decline”. The blame lies somewhere else, you see: immigrants, “the establishment”, “the woke”, car-haters, refugees.
I first spoke properly with Boff in 2009, in a Dalston café for the Guardian (which seems to have lost the audio file). By then he had already led Hillingdon Council. I said to him something like, you’re liberal, you’re gay, you ride a bicycle, so what are you doing in the Conservative Party? He was happy to rise to my challenge, and has never ceased confounding orthodox ideas about what a Tory can and should be.
For a spell, Boff’s Twitter profile informed readers that he was “probably more liberal than you are”. He is called a libertarian (a label he seems to accept), which isn’t always the same thing as being liberal – or “a liberal”, at any rate – but Boff inhabits territory where those things overlap.
On social issues, he has advocated measures few Conservatives support, notably piloting a “managed street prostitution area” to better protect sex workers from violence and keep their activities away from residential areas. He backs the regulated legalisation of cannabis, an issue on which he has been bolder than Sadiq Khan. He wants to see more family-sized homes built. He’s also produced a powerful report about modern slavery in London and the need to tackle it.
Boff is a localist, keen for community voices to be better heard, especially on planning and housing issues – in his view, opposition to development in London would be reduced if neighbourhood wishes, hopes and concerns were more respected and better understood. He sees a greater devolution of power to local levels as consistent with, rather than antipathetic to, the enlargement of the London’s strategic layer of government to encompass some of the Home Counties within a “southern powerhouse“.
His dismay over Braverman’s low populism – he described her as “a bully” – is far from the first time he has broken rank. Boff was among those London Tories who condemned Zac Goldsmith’s 2016 unsuccessful mayoral campaign, which exploited anxiety about Muslims. For years, he has been one of a valiant handful trying to reform how his party operates in the capital. A serial applicant to be Tory mayoral candidate, he was excluded from the shortlist this time. He’d have been a far better choice than Susan Hall.
Boff’s views and policy ideas can, of course, be debated. Some dismiss them as eccentric. But though distinctive and, arguably, in some cases too optimistic, they form a coherent whole and a starting point for a kind of Conservatism which, certainly in London and other cities, might appeal to a broader and larger public than Rishi Sunak and his restive senior colleagues are seeking to stir up as the general election approaches.
In both words and deeds, Andrew Boff, a Tory for half a century, points the way to what a modern Conservatism could be. What happened to him in Manchester vividly dramatised how far and how fast his party is heading in the opposite direction.
X/Twitter: On London and Dave Hill. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to Dave’s Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. Image from Boff’s BBC interview.