“I was stood next to the heckler,” the BBC reporter Ione Wells tweeted on Tuesday afternoon, regarding the man who’d just been thrown out of Suella Braverman’s speech at the Conservative conference. “In quite a soft tone he said ‘there’s no such thing as gender ideology’ as Braverman was listing things she thought ‘woke’ institutions were adopting. Security immediately swarmed him and escorted him out.”
The man in question was not just any heckler: it was Andrew Boff, the Conservative chairman of the London Assembly. There’s something quite telling, not to mention funny, in the fact experienced political correspondents are unable to recognise such a long-standing fixture of the capital’s political scene, even as he is being physically dragged away: a reminder that, as I’ve argued in the past, the British media is not so much London-centric as Westminster-centric. More than that, though, there is something deeply sinister about seeing previously loyal party members thrown out – physically escorted by the police – for no reason other than that they expressed the belief, almost to themselves, that part of the Home Secretary’s conference speech amounted to a “homophobic rant”. (Braverman later tweeted that his “heckles” were “silly, but I think he should be forgiven and let back into conference”. A little patronising perhaps, but still: if only she was so generous to everyone else, eh?)
Boff is not a nationally known figure, but will be familiar to anyone who has followed the London Assembly in its nearly a quarter century of existence. A gay libertarian, he’s supported the legalisation of cannabis for decades, and became one of the first people in Britain to have a civil partnership back in 2005. He’s also stood for the Tories’ London mayoral nomination enough times (2000, 2004, 2008, 2016, 2021, and for the election to be held next year) that it’s become ever so slightly awkward.
In 2018, in the run up to what would end up being the 2021 mayoral election, I attempted to interview all three shortlisted Conservative candidates for Skylines, the urbanism podcast I was hosting at the time. The man who would ultimately win the chance to get thrashed by Sadiq Khan, Shaun Bailey, declined to participate. (I replaced him with some light music.) Joy Morrissey, a US-born councillor in Ealing, was thoughtful and sane enough that it genuinely surprised me when, now the MP for Beaconsfield, she started to spout whatever culture war nonsense her party happened to be high on this week.
Boff has not pivoted. In our hour-long chat he, unsurprisingly, attacked Khan’s record – on violent crime, the delivery of Crossrail, managing the unions. And I had many questions about his policy preferences, not least where he was going to put all the houses (not flats) he wanted to build if he wouldn’t even countenance building on the green belt.
Against that, though, he did seem genuinely keen to build council houses, of the sort he had grown up in. He was willing to criticise police failure, and recognised the importance of back office services, not just frontline staff. I disagreed with much of what he said, but he seemed like someone who had his own ideas for making London better, and who wasn’t interested purely in advancement within the Conservative Party.
Boff, in other words, is exactly the sort of liberal, urban voter the Conservative Party has not just lost, but told to piss off. Meanwhile, the Tory mayoral candidate next year will be Susan Hall, a woman who makes up stories about the city’s Jewish community being afraid of Sadiq Khan, and spouts a stream of conspiratorial nonsense of a sort that makes you long for the calm, collected sanity of Suella Braverman instead.
Few who haven’t spent years following the minutiae of internal London politics will care very much about the political career of Andrew Boff. But his being manhandled from the conference hall merely for voicing dissent feels like a symbol of exactly where the party’s going, and why it should bother us all.
[See also: Inside Sunak’s No 10]