What is the point of Oliver Dowden?

Politics is a cruel business

Oliver Dowden has been overlooked. Rishi reshuffled but left his fixer out of the mix. Our MP remains Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Woke-Finder General and head of the government’s apparently entirely inactive (possibly fictitious?) Strikes Taskforce but is further than ever from a big job.

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

And we promise we’ll stop going on about the Strikes Taskforce at some point. You’re bored hearing that it hasn’t done anything yet. We’ve got half a dozen Google alerts running in case it comes back to life with a jolt. You’d think it would be a pretty busy taskforce about now, what with all the strikes, but apparently they’re still in the barracks, waiting for their orders.

Anyway, the Sunak reshuffle wasn’t a big one – most ministers stayed in place – but experts say it’s going to have a dramatic effect on the ‘machinery of government’ and that it will cost over £100M to implement the restructure of the business and culture ministries. There’s also an entirely new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, to be led by Grant Shapps, responsible for boosting Britain’s energy supplies and the transition away from fossil fuels.

Some are surprised the Prime Minister didn’t take the opportunity to advance some of the loyalists who helped get him elected, though. It must be nerve-wracking for a second-tier figure like Dowden, scrabbling for relevance among the big beasts, to see members of the same 2015 Parliamentary entry whizzing past him and taking up full cabinet positions – Lucy Frazer just leapfrogged into the Culture role that Dowden himself was removed from by Boris Johnson in 2021.

The Tory Party may not have a conscience but it definitely has an id – and he is called Lee Anderson. That Anderson is getting closer to one of Dowden’s other previous jobs – Chairman of the Party – must also be causing dyspepsia in the Dowden household.

Meanwhile, one of Dowden’s decisions from back when he was still Culture Secretary, has come back to haunt him – although he’s been all ‘nothing to do with me, guv‘ since the story broke.

Richard Sharp, businessman and Chairman of the BBC
Richard Sharp

Nobody outside London knew anything about Richard Sharp until he was shoved into the role of Chairman of the BBC in 2021. He is, though, evidently a genius. A cast-iron financial savant – and from humble beginnings. His public school was tragically outside the top tier but through sheer grit he managed to get accepted at Oxford and completed a degree in PPE nonetheless. He went on to make hundreds of millions of pounds from moving money around in ways we don’t pretend to understand in the City (this 20-year-old article estimates his wealth at £125M). When Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, Sharp was an adviser.

So it’s bewildering that a man of his calibre would somehow manage to get himself mixed up in Boris Johnson’s personal financial affairs. Apparently, instead of saying “sod off, Boris, I’d rather stick my head in a wasps’ nest.” or just blocking his number, Sharp ignored all the red flags and offered to hook Johnson up with another millionaire who said he’d guarantee a loan for the PM.

The loan, we’re told, came off, and Johnson trousered a flexible sum of up to £800,000 (we don’t know who actually lent him the money, how much he drew down in the end or whether he’s paid any of it back yet).

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

This is where it gets complicated. At this point, Sharp was on the fast track for the BBC job – Johnson had announced he was the preferred candidate and insiders were saying it was a done deal – so it occured to Sharp that his proximity to the lethal spinning blade of the Prime Minister’s private life might cause him some difficulties when it came to the interview. We assume Oliver Dowden knew nothing about the festival of stupidity and venality going on in secret around him, although he was nominally the appointing minister (and his name is at the bottom of the appointment letter).

A wine fridge that was kept in an office at number 10 Downing Street during the pandemic
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case

Sharp decided to involve a civil servant. He chose Simon “Partygate” Case, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service. And – guess what – Case said the loan was cool and that Johnson wouldn’t even need to declare it because it was “family business”. That last bit is kind of perplexing because although Blyth and Johnson are related, they’re related in roughly the same way Danny Dyer is related to Edward III. They share a great-great-grandfather and apparently Johnson didn’t even know Blyth until Sharp introduced them.

So, bringing this up to date, Richard Sharp has now been censured by the House of Commons Culture select committee – ‘significant errors of judgement’ is the phrase – for not mentioning the loan in his application for the BBC job. He’s issued a non-apology of the “I’m sorry you’re upset” variety and is now hoping that the other inquiry – by a KC appointed by the independent commissioner for public appointments and one that will carry more weight – is kinder to him.

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.

Twiddling his thumbs in a new era

It’s over. Oliver Dowden has gone home and put the kettle on.

Oliver Dowden MP wearing a Covid mask in a cyberpunk virtual world
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

So, a little time has passed, a dynastic shift has occurred. Liz Truss, apparently unpopular with her MPs and unexpectedly not quite as popular with the party membership as she was hoping, is our new Prime Minister.

The composition of Truss’s cabinet is now settled and we know that our MP is, at least for the time being, profoundly on the outside. His face doesn’t fit. Although Oliver Dowden managed to jump pretty deftly from the embarrassment of the Theresa May confidence-and-supply interregnum to the high-octane clusterfuck of the Johnson plague years (Dowden, along with Jenrick and Sunak, formed the ‘gang of three’ MPs who were first to support Johnson for leader in June 2019). A third jump to the Truss camp would seem to be unlikely to say the least.

Gritted teeth, much?

Oliver Dowden’s start in Parliament came via modernising social liberal David Cameron while in opposition and not via the sixth-form debating society centred on Truss. Going to Cambridge must have seemed like a good idea at the time but it meant he missed his induction into the Ayn Rand reading club and the Friedrich Hayek fan club.

Being among the first MPs to endorse Rishi for the leadership won’t have helped, of course, but this is more about doctrine. The clique that has just inherited the great offices of state is united by a comicbook version of market fundamentalism that Dowden doesn’t share. And is it just us or did Dowden never look entirely comfortable on the Culture Wars frontline?

Anyway, it’s safe to say that we’re in for an awkward period of trying to smash the square peg of a shrinking, top-heavy, post-crisis economy into the round hole of Singaporean hyper-capitalism, trying to fix an explosion of poverty and failing social systems using the thoroughly unsuitable tools of vintage turbo-Thatcherism. It’s going to be intense.

And Oliver Dowden will be watching it all from the back benches.

There now follows a consideration of two terrible books

It’s not unusual for a Prime Minister to come to power with a detailed written record of their beliefs in print. Perhaps a little less common for it to have happened twice. We can confirm (seriously, we spent our own money researching this) that the two books written by Liz Truss and her University pals are not what you’d call unputdownable. But these turgid texts—animated by a kind of Poundland Thatcherism that you will recognise—are now both best-sellers and will surely be reprinted.

After the Coalition, from 2011, is the more detailed work—for an audience of wonks and insiders. The urgent premise is that the coalition is a damaging obstruction and that the Conservative Party ought to plan to dismantle it sharpish and return to the fundamentals. It offers a systematic—if largely recycled—trans-Atlantic response to the financial crisis that, on the face of it, would rebuild the system that caused it in the first place. A vision of a ‘muscular’, confident, entrepreneurial nation. All the greatest hits are here—longer prison sentences, family values, hard work, deregulation, enthusiastic financialisation. We’d be the first to acknowledge the need to range widely in the search for solutions to the grim catalogue of crises we face—we should be open to new ideas from all sources. But there aren’t any here. It’s a dirge.

Britannia Unchained was published a year later and doesn’t really update the earlier text but takes a different approach—international models are presented. Some eccentric readings of Mulroney’s Canada, Israel’s energy sector. There’s a quite interesting analysis of New Labour in government. It’s substantially shorter and written for a wider audience—this is the one to get if you want the quick overview. Here we’re still years from the Brexit referendum and Cameron hasn’t even made his pledge to give electors a yes-no vote on EU membership yet but the book is weirdly animated by the spirit of Brexit—a kind of beligerent foreshadowing. It’s the book from which this quote, regularly disapprovingly shared, comes:

Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.

The quote is the introduction to Chapter four, Work Ethic

But it’s full of this kind of stuff. Grafters are idealised and the cohorts of the lazy, the unemployed, the feckless and the unproductive are demonised and abused. It’s a grim text, unrelieved by humanity of any kind and exhausting to read.