He swerved his party’s conference and he’s getting ready for a battle with Truss over planning and the green belt
So we have no idea what Oliver Dowden was thinking during the last ten days of chaos in the financial markets, surging bond yields and mounting anxiety about the highest mortgage interest rates in 14 years. We do know that he was completely silent, on all platforms for over a week.
We also know that Dowden was on #TeamRishi and that Rishi Sunak’s position on Truss-Kwarteng’s voodoo economics is well known. The former Chancellor even essentially predicted the present chaos. We also know that Dowden is not in Birmingham for his party’s conference (only loyalists attended, and even those who did sloped off early). Gordon Rayner in The Telegraph speculates that Dowden’s disilllusionment might even cause him to stand down at the next election (and the party might decide to replace him with a more compliant candidate anyway, of course, as they did when Dowden himself was helicoptered in to replace the hapless James Clappison).
Britain is still in shock. We all knew that Liz Truss and her Chancellor were prepared to ‘challenge economic orthodoxy’ but no one expected the arbitrary, unhinged intensity of that Friday morning in Parliament and the spiralling chaos of the following hours and days, the Bank of England’s emergency action, the withdrawal of thousands of mortgage products, the despair of young borrowers. The damage to Tory Party prospects might well be terminal.
Opinion polls are showing vast, 1997-style leads for Labour, the kind of leads only overcome by an incumbent once in electoral history – by Margaret Thatcher, as it happens – although she needed to win a war in the South Atlantic to achieve that. Kwasi Kwarteng, in a YouGov poll, has pulled off the extraordinary feat of going straight from being ‘mostly unknown’ to ‘mostly disliked’ with no honeymoon period at all, even among Conservative voters. Danny Finkelstein, Tory peer and realist, says in The Times that Tories must brace for a rout worse than 1997. Another insider, Tim Montgomerie, founder of the influential Conservative Home web site, told BBC radio that Truss will have to go or the party will face a choice of being ‘a joke or dead‘ by Christmas.
Kwarteng’s moment in the sun, one for which he seemed oddly unprepared (or was that just us?), the ‘mini-budget‘ that made Britain a laughing stock, lays out an economic programme that teeters, like an upside-down jelly pyramid of stupid, on a single chart – long discredited – which asserts that cutting tax rates can increase tax revenues by promoting investment (it’s called the Laffer Curve, this chart, and even Laffer says it doesn’t mean what they think it does). Kwarteng’s announcement will be remembered for one of the worst outcomes for a Chancellor since they executed Thomas Browne for treason in 1460.
So what has Oliver Dowden been doing with the time he might have spent walking the corridors and hotel bars in Birmingham? He’s been preparing (cue training montage, like the one in Kung Fu Panda or in Rocky IV). Search Parliament’s feeds and you’ll find he’s been working on his game for the planning debate for when Parliament returns, firing off a sequence of barbed questions about planning and the protection of the green belt, the Tory Kryptonite.
On 28 September he submitted this written question:
To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what the Government’s policy is on the ability for the Planning Inspectorate to override planning decisions made by local councils.
and this one…
To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what steps the Government will take to ensure local authorities can put in place Local Plans which ensure the protection of local green spaces.
(Click the links above for the minister’s predictably anodyne answers)
Oliver Dowden’s doing something that Tory MPs in the green and suburban bits of Britain will all be doing right now – he’s getting ready for the big fight over planning, a fight that will set heartland Tories like him against newer ‘red wall’ MPs and against the market headbangers in the cabinet. A key aspect of the Truss government’s ‘growth plan‘ (still pretty thin, if truth be told) is a loosening of planning law and an opening up of the green belt for development. The darkly hollow phrase ‘with community consent’, which either renders the government’s plans for an explosion in new development meaningless or suggests a very special definition of ‘consent’, really doesn’t make the plan seem any more deliverable. This is going to be one of the major battles inside the Conservative party in the new Parliamentary session. Our MP, formerly Minister for Privet Hedges, remember, is going to be on the front line.
- You can search Oliver Dowden’s speeches and voting history at They Work for You.