What we do here is a public service

In the distant future, when archaeologists uncover this blog, buried under about forty feet of Thames silt, they’ll thank us.

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

What we do is keep a fastidious eye on what our MP gets up to. It’s not personal, he’s a pretty good MP. He pays attention when we write him whingey letters and he makes a decent effort to look after his constituents and their quotidien concerns.

However, Oliver Dowden is a minister in a disastrous government that’s visibly screwed everything up, over a period approaching 13 years. Latest catastrophic highlight: life expectancy in Britain has been flatlining for ten years and is now right at the bottom of the table for the big nations. For the poorest, it’s now falling. It’s worth dwelling on that: in the last ten years (it began long before Covid) our government has managed to reverse over a hundred years of steady improvement in the most basic of wellbeing measures – how long people live.

Anyway, in the last couple of weeks, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been pretty busy. Let’s catch up:

He banned TikTok. Okay, he banned it from government-owned devices. This is Dowden with his cybersecurity hat on (you’ll remember, he wears a lot of hats). Yes it’s pointless, yes it’s irrational, but it’s nice to see a government actually acting against a tech corporation instead of wringing their hands in a kind of supine, passive-aggressive way like they usually do.

A press photo of Prince Charles wearing special glasses on a visit to a laboratory in Hungary
Like this one

One may now obtain a portrait of the King, free of charge, paid for by H.M. Government. Hold on, though. Dowden says it’s not for everyone, just for ‘public authorities’. His announcement says the scheme, which will apparently cost £8M, includes councils, courts, schools, police forces and fire and rescue services but we’re not sure if it covers sarcastic local blogs.

Check your phone, it might be Oliver Dowden. On 23 April, the government is going to send everyone in Britain an urgent text message. They’re testing a new, nationwide alert system that some of the papers are obviously calling ‘armageddon alerts’. It will be used in the event of an emergency, like a war or a natural disaster. Given the scale of the collapse in Conservative support nationally we wouldn’t be at all surprised if the first message said ‘VOTE TORY ON 4 MAY’. This is actually an international system that’s been used in some countries for years. It’s built into your mobile and you can turn it off if you’d rather not have Oliver Dowden freaking you out when the balloon goes up. And do you think they chose Shakespeare’s birthday for a reason? If they did they missed a cast-iron opportunity to call it The Grim Alarm (sorry).

Oliver Dowden knew that the BBC was worried about the appointment of Boris Johnson’s pal as Chairman about five months before he gave Richard Sharp the job. He didn’t do anything about it, though. And, of course, it was only nominally Dowden’s decision – it was Boris Johnson’s and it had already been made.

Here in the constituency, we know that our MP opposes the sale of the old airport land for the construction of a rail freight terminal but it’s been his government’s policy to permit the development for over a decade now, so it must be awkward for a Cabinet Office Minister. Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans has been asking questions in Parliament, though. The last time Dowden did so was in 2020.

The former Minister for Culture has developed an interest in choral music. Actually, it’s not the first time. But now he wants the BBC to reverse its recent decision to close the BBC Singers, Britain’s only full-time, professional chamber choir. Dowden’s Conservative government has cut BBC funding by 30% since 2010.

Fifteen extraordinary people have been recognised for bravery. They’re on the Government’s Civilian Gallantry List, issued for the first time since 2021. This is another Oliver Dowden joint. We would, perhaps tendentiously, contrast this list with Liz Truss’s ‘list of shame’ or even Boris Johnson’s ‘list of cronies’ (which, remember, includes his dad).

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Dowden is ready for action

Still no news from the industrial action taskforce. It’s almost four months since Captain Dowden was put in charge of Rishi Sunak’s crack anti-strikes platoon. We’ve been combing the news ever since and we’re pretty sure he still hasn’t actually done anything and the strikes keep coming. We’ll keep you posted.

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.

Are the Tories about to go full Berlusconi?

The Bungafication of the Conservative Party

Is it possible that the Conservative Party is going to recycle its last Prime Minister, the one who was kicked out amidst multiple scandals after sixty of his ministers resigned in despair? Yes it is.

A composite image showing Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi and British politician Boris Johnson side by side, both covering their faces with their palms
The Brotherhood of Party Animals

SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE. Sunak has achieved the 100 nominations he needs to go through to the members’ vote, according to his supporters, but he’s not said he’ll stand yet. Seems likely he will, though, since close allies, including Oliver Dowden, are tweeting their support. Johnson lags behind but, according to the lists kept by those in the know, he’s still in second place with MPs (and he’s back from the Dominican Republic). In a twist we probably should have anticipated, according to one reporter, Tory members are pressuring their MPs to support Johnson, in some cases threatening them with deselection. Penny Mordaunt, currently in a pretty poor third place, is the first to say she’s standing. A lot could change over the weekend, though.


Screenshot of betting for Conservative leader at 2pm on 21 October 2022

FRIDAY’S POST. To be clear, after an early surge in support Thursday night, Boris Johnson has now settled to second-favourite to replace Liz Truss as leader with the bookmakers, behind his nemesis Rishi Sunak. The insiders tracking MPs’ support for the likely candidates also have Johnson second behind Sunak (Cautious Conservative Home, more gung-ho Guido Fawkes). Paul Goodman, grizzled observer of the party, says Johnson is unlikely to pass the nomination threshold. In case you were wondering, the best you’ll get on Oliver Dowden is 200-1 – and his odds are drifting. Save your money. He’s still firmly on #TeamRishi and is apparently busy surveying MPs about their support for the former Chancellor. Meanwhile, our conscientious MP still has his head down and has been asking technical questions of the DCMS. Always fascinating to note that the ordinary business of Parliament goes on, no matter what else is happening.

As we often say here, we’re not insiders. We’re not in the torrid WhatsApp groups. We just watch the news like you do. So we can’t be sure that the Tories will embrace full Bungafication and appoint Johnson again. Some red wall MPs have convinced themselves only Johnson can save their seats. Members, ever divorced from reality, are obviously up for it. Donors seem keen too.

Boris Johnson is obviously not Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian tycoon’s rap sheet is a yard long, he’s a fraud and a serial abuser. He’s been expelled from and re-entered politics half a dozen times but, remarkably, he’s returning to government and he’s embroiled in another potentially career-ending scandal as we write.

But Johnson’s debt to the original political party animal is evident. His resilience in the face of scandal, his flexibility with regard to the truth and his jaw-dropping readiness to brazen out catastrophes political, legal and parental is pure Berlusconi. As is his style of ‘governing-as-campaigning’ – for leaders of the Berlusconi-Johnson variety, there’s no steady period of heads-down government between campaigns. It’s all-campaigning-all-the-time.

The Economist's cover for October 22 - 28 2022, with an illustration showing UK Prime Minister Liz Truss as Britannia holding huge fork loaded with spaghetti. The headline reads 'Welcome to Britaly'

We’re not the only ones to see the resemblance to Italian politics in the current crisis. The Economist’s latest cover is headed ‘Welcome to Britaly’ and the leader article finds a close resemblance to recent Italian history: “A country of political instability, low growth and subordination to the bond markets.” The Italians themselves are furious about the comparison, which they say is insulting (although it mostly seems to be the spaghetti they’re unhappy with). There are jokes about the insertion of a technocratic caretaker Prime Minister (remember when Merkel and the European Commission removed Berlusconi from power? Brexit took that option off the table). People are calling Jeremy Hunt ‘the British Mario Draghi‘.

Bringing Johnson back would surely complete the analogy. Buona fortuna Gran Bretagna!

The thankless work of a Party Chairman

An open letter to the Leader of the Opposition, from Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party Oliver Dowden.

Oliver Dowden, our MP, is Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party. It’s an unelected role that’s in the gift of the leader of the party (Boris Johnson), so it’s often used as a place to ‘park’ useful Ministers while they’re out of formal office (this also explains why there’s quite often more than one Chairman – it’s a kind of waiting area for soon-to-be-recycled ministers). While the party is in government the Chairman is also typically given a sinecure role such as Minister without Portfolio, which allows them to attend cabinet meetings.

In his role as Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden is required to do a fair amount of political spade work – defending the party leadership, keeping the latest policy wheezes in the news, rallying the troops at conferences, carrying the message to sympathetic foreigners, that kind of thing.

Today’s grunt work is a strongly-worded open letter to the leader of the opposition, part of a dizzying 36 hours in Westminster politics that seems worth a closer look. Let’s try to put Dowden’s letter into a sequence:

  1. Tuesday evening (19 April). Boris Johnson attends a meeting of Tory MPs, ostensibly to apologise for partygate and rally the troops. He takes the opportunity to criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury and the BBC. As expected, the content of his speech is quickly made public.
  2. Later Tuesday evening. Friendly media outlets are briefed about the speech – that the PM asserted that the Archbishop has been more critical of the Government’s plan to deport refugees to Rwanda than he has been of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance. Also that the PM was unhappy about the criticism of the plan on the BBC.
  3. Wednesday morning. This is where it gets complicated. The press may also have been briefed that the PM was unhappy with the BBC’s coverage of Ukraine. On Wednesday’s Today on BBC Radio 4, Justin Webb picks up this line and grills Paul Scully, the unfortunate junior minister who happens to be on duty that morning, about the Prime Minister’s criticism of BBC journalism – “can you come up with an occasion when Boris Johnson has put his life on the line for the truth as Jeremy Bowen has, as Lyse Doucet has, as Clive Myrie has?” Webb’s line of questioning becomes part of the story, of course. There are complaints and a line is provided by the BBC press office (quoted in this Telegraph article).
  4. Wednesday lunchtime. Webb’s line of questioning obviously hits home, though, and when Keir Starmer accuses Johnson of slandering “decent people in a private room” and says “how can the Prime Minister claim to be a patriot when he deliberately attacks and degrades the institutions of our great country?” at Prime Minister’s Questions, The PM responds furiously – “…he must be out of his tiny mind…”
  5. Wednesday afternoon. So, by now the disagreement comes down to whether the PM criticised the BBC’s coverage of the Rwanda plan or its coverage of the Ukraine war (or both) in his speech to MPs.
  6. Thursday morning. Central Office concludes that this calumny – that the Prime Minister has criticised the BBC for its coverage of the Ukraine war – cannot stand and must be tackled head-on. One aspect of the response is Oliver Dowden’s letter to Keir Starmer, published on his Twitter account. It catalogues Boris Johnson’s various defences of press freedom (not a very long list, in truth) and finishes with a routine reminder that the Labour Party was once led by a Kremlin apologist who routinely wore a slightly communist hat. Ministers tour the breakfast studios to demand an apology from Starmer, newspapers pick up the letter and run it under headlines like Sir Keir Starmer told to retract claims Boris Johnson criticised BBC’s Ukraine coverage (The Telegraph) and Boris Johnson ally suggests he shouldn’t apologise to Commons – but Keir Starmer should (The Mirror).

And this is all in a day’s work for a hard-working Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

  • The Conservative Party has a useful page about the duties of the Party Chairman. Oliver Dowden’s letter is on Dowden’s own Twitter, not on the Party’s web site or even on an official Twitter account. Does anyone archive this stuff? Are Government librarians scouring MPs’ social media for material? Will historians be able to access statements like this in the distant future? Or does it actually serve politicians that official statements are now no more permanent than tweets?

Oliver Dowden on partygate

A photograph taken from a window at Number 10 Downing Street in May 2020, showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson (with her newborn baby Wilfred) and two aides thought to be Dominic Cummings and Martin Reynolds. Part of a larger image that shows other staff on the lawn neyond the terrace.
The Prime Minister and Number 10 staff during the first national lockdown

UPDATE 13 April 2022. As expected, the Prime Minister’s fixed penalty notice has arrived (two in the letterbox in fact). Our MP was not the only loyalist to be dropped in it by the news, of course, although Oliver Dowden’s “…he is not going to be subject to a fixed-penalty notice because he is confident that he has not broken the law” from three weeks ago was more fulsome than most. Along with dozens of other Tory MPs, Dowden has now shared the official line:

Fixed penalties are starting to land on the doormats of Conservative Party staff, civil servants and, quite possibly, MPs and ministers. We don’t know how many have been issued but the BBC says it’ll be at least 15 but more likely 20 and there may be a second and subsequent batches. The investigation takes in 12 events, though, so it seems unlikely it’ll stop at 20.

From the Telegraph we get this complicated construction: “Downing Street said Boris Johnson has not been told by the Metropolitan Police that he is being fined over the ‘partygate’ scandal.” The Met won’t be providing a list of those fined (they don’t normally publish the names of people issued with fixed penalties) but we’re willing to bet you a tenner right now that there’ll soon be a list in the public domain. Still no word on the Prime Minister, although his promise to tell us if he is fined presumably still stands.

So, although as Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio his loyalty is obviously guaranteed, it’s possible that Oliver Dowden was going out on a limb a bit last week when he told James O’Brien on LBC:

The prime minister is actually absolutely resolutely clear that he is not going to be subject to a fixed-penalty notice because he is confident that he has not broken the law.

Oliver Dowden, LBC, 21 March 2022

The mood music this week suggests Johnson’s innocence is not quite such a sure thing, though. You’ll find a dozen news and opinion pieces since we learnt that fines were imminent, even in the Tory press, that suggest Johnson’s partygate woes are not over, even that his leadership may still be in peril. The Evening Standard, for instance, owned by the Prime Minister’s friend Evgeny Lebedev, is pretty sure that ‘a day of reckoning’ is coming, although the loyalists questioned are pretty sure that it won’t be till after the Ukraine crisis.

And then there’s the Sue Gray report (bet you’d forgotten about that), the final, unexpurgated, version of which is due after the Met’s investigation is finished.