Minister for Flannel

Ministers are regularly required to show up and look credible before the various committees of the UK Parliament

Do us a favour, watch this short clip from Oliver Dowden’s appearance before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday and see if you can figure out what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s ‘propriety and ethics’ team (22 people, we learn) actually does.

We’ve watched it half a dozen times (for we really do need to get out more) and can honestly say that we still have no idea. Grade-A flannel, almost perfect obfuscation (and much disingenuous use of the “I wouldn’t want to prejudice the ongoing inquiry…” defence).

Oliver Dowden – peak Parliamentary flannel

Dowden so effectively frustrates the efforts of the committee chair William Wragg and senior member John McDonnell to find out what that 22-person team would actually do in the event of a ‘flag’ being raised about a Minister’s conduct (like, for instance, if the HMRC alerted the previous Prime Minister to an incoming Minister’s off-shore tax arrangements) that they’re driven back to questions about ‘departmental efficiency’ in no time.

We’ve pointed out many times in the past what a good soldier Dowden is. He can be sent into a situation like this, fraught with political peril, and emerge unscathed, brushing down his suit and moving briskly on to the next messy situation.

We continue to think that a loyal consigliere like Dowden is not cut out for a role at the very top of politics but he could easily continue to circle around the leadership – cleaning up after ministerial indiscretions and digging metaphorical graves – indefinitely (or until the revolving door beckons). A survivor.

The rest of Dowden’s testimony to the committee concerned cost cutting in the civil service (yes to that, apparently), the declining happiness of civil servants (yes to that too). They’re miserable, mainly because their salaries have actually gone down in the last 11 years – strikes are planned. Karin Smyth grills the Minister and his Permanent Secretary on civil contingencies (disasters, terrorism etc.). It is claimed that there’s a new approach to risk so the next time the balloon goes up there’ll be less administrative panic.

The Coronation Claims Office comes up – someone has to be responsible for the comicbook anachronism of Crown ceremonial – and it is Oliver Dowden. He has some more flannel about the obligation of the state to fund the upcoming coronation, apparently forgetting that for almost the whole history of the British Monarchy coronations were not state affairs and required no government money.

The department’s annual report and accounts was scrutinised – and in particular a big increase in costs. Chisholm pins most of the extra cost on big events – Cop26 in Glasgow, a G7, the Grenfell Inquiry etc.

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

We learn that Dowden, on taking up his new role, led an ‘open session’ with civil servants at which he invited them to share their concerns about pay and conditions (just trying to imagine what it was like to attend that open session is making us twitch).

John McDonnell raises some pretty grim data about poverty amongst the lowest-paid civil servants (8% have used a foodbank). Dowden insists that there will be no improvement to this year’s 2% pay increase.

There’s an entertaining vignette illustrating the way the current government’s effort to push back against ‘woke culture’ in the civil service is failing. Ronnie Cowan (SNP) quotes one of Dowden’s predecessors in his role (Jacob Rees-Mogg no less) insisting that all training involving the words ‘diversity, wellness and inclusion’ be cancelled. Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm responds: “the diversity and inclusion strategy is a core part of what the government does and has indeed been renewed twice by subsequent ministers.” The blob pushes back.

  • Useful Cabinet Office explainer from the Institute for Government.
  • The digital team inside Parliament is famously good. Their online coverage of Parliamentary debates, committees etc. is really exemplary. An important window on the operation of government and legislature.
  • The House of Commons Library has just published a fascinating research briefing about coronation history and ceremonial.

Job done

How do you turn a respectable, if old-fashioned, pillar of the post-war liberal establishment into a weak, discredited organ of the state in two years? Ask Oliver Dowden.

Richard Sharp, Chairman of the BBC
Richard Sharp, once Rishi Sunak’s boss, now Chairman of the BBC

To be fair, this isn’t really much to do with our MP, who was at the time Culture Secretary. He just signed the paperwork appointing Tory Party mega-donor Richard Sharp Chairman of the BBC – the choice of BBC Chair is made by the Prime Minister, there’s an ‘appointments panel’ involved and the formal responsibility actually belongs to the monarch.

And this is obviously not a new tactic. It would be wrong to give the Conservative government too much credit here. Packing the boards of state (and quasi-state) organisations with allies is best practice for governments in a hurry everywhere. It’s not even a particularly bad thing – we’ve got a list of people we’d like appointed to the boards of various institutions ourselves (let us know if you’re interested in seeing it, we can meet up at your club).

What’s new and interesting about this government is how closely connected all the players are and how apparently shameless they are about their intentions. The government is not appointing dull technocrats here. They’re appointing ambitious Flashman figures who they hope will briskly transform the institutions they’re inserted into. Sharp is son of an ennobled business titan himself, and a millionaire many times over (it seems almost redundant to add that he was once Rishi Sunak’s boss). He wasn’t put into the BBC to give the books a once-over, he’s meant to be turning the place upside-down. And his appointment was managed in a pretty single-minded way – Boris Johnson made sure everyone knew well in advance that Sharp was the preferred candidate.

Anyway, the story of the £800,000 loan guarantee, broken by The Times, is a complicated, dispiriting mess. We won’t try to summarise it in any detail here (you can read it yourself) but you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s got the grubby fingerprints of the Johnson era all over it. There’s the usual dense web of old friends and top jobs and undeclared relationships.

The phrase “…there is no known precedent of a prime minister selecting an individual [for the BBC job] who was simultaneously helping them with their personal finances.” really jumps out of the article.

The story involves Cabinet Secretary Simon “Partygate” Case (obvs); Sam Blyth, a distant cousin of Boris Johnson (who we learn was chasing a top job at the British Council himself); an enormous loan from an unknown source that the head of the civil service, when consulted, decided didn’t need to be declared. Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ethics who later resigned over another scandal, was also involved.

A nice detail from the Times story involves Johnson, Sharp and Blyth (the man who guaranted the loan) sharing chop suey and wine at Chequers (chop suey?) before the loan was finalised, and a couple of months before Richard Sharp was appointed Chairman of the BBC. We don’t know what they talked about but Sharp says it wasn’t the Prime Minister’s financial difficulties, the loan or the BBC job.

When you’re 20 points behind in the polls…

Second jobs, woke nonsense, stolen artworks, a taskforce that’s done literally nothing – what your MP’s been up to since the new year

Photograph of an empty meeting room with a flipchart and a large boardroom table
An empty meeting room like the one in which Oliver Dowden hasn’t been holding his strikes taskforce meetings

Follow the money. Oliver Dowden features in this big Sky News exposé of payments to MPs, from which we learn that our legislators have taken £17.1 million from second jobs in this parliament and that almost 90% of it went to Tories. We already knew about Dowden’s extra income but it was interesting to learn that his twenty-five grand* barely gets him into the top 35% of all MPs – although, according to Byline Times, Dowden is also one of ten MPs – all Tories, of course – who have taken jobs with party donors in the last year.

It’s all culture wars all the time. Have you noticed that whenever things get bad for this Conservative government – strikes, small boats, sexual predators in the police, flatlining economy – they seem to develop a heightened interest in university radicals and unisex toilets? This time the Scottish Parliament has provided a handy opportunity for Sunak’s government to win some culture wars points. Oliver Dowden has a role here – he’s been asked by the Prime Minister to appoint an ‘Anti-Woke Czar’ to clamp down on political correctness in universities. Expect much more of this in coming weeks. It’s all they’ve got.

The strikes taskforce is apparently on strike. In December Dowden was appointed head of the government’s Winter of Discontent taskforce. There were a couple of TV appearances but since then it looks like he hasn’t actually done anything. We’ve continued to research this and we still can’t find any meetings, new policies, announcements or action of any kind, in fact (if you’ve spotted any activity from the taskforce do let us know in a comment. We’ll update this post). Our MP has also been out defending the government’s proposed new anti-strike legislation while the rest of us wonder how threatening nurses with the sack can possibly help resolve the deepest crisis in our public services in decades.

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

Clinging to the loot. Oliver Dowden opposes the return of stolen artworks – Benin bronzes, Acropolis friezes and so on – appearing on the telly, making it all part of his anti-woke campaign, writing stern letters to the museums and so on. Meanwhile, the museums are just getting on with it, finding clever ways around the government’s rules and sending artworks home anyway. There’s even been progress in the gnarliest of disagreements – the one between the Greeks and the British Museum. The new Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, has returned to the matter, and is also insisting that artworks must not be returned. This one is going to run and run.

* To clarify, as we reported here, some of Oliver Dowden’s money in this parliament has come from Caxton Associates, the Mayfair hedge fund known to have made money from shorting the pound and for bankrolling Liz Truss’s short-lived assault on rationality last year. Some has come from the slightly less notorious South Hertfordshire Business Club – a club with no web site, no staff, no premises, no accounts and, apparently, no members (looks like it shares an address with the St Albans Conservative Association). According to the Electoral Commission, though, the club has given £82,741.09 to Hertsmere Tories since 2017. Details in this spreadsheet. And more here about the very careful timing of Dowden’s second jobs.