Keeping busy

You have to wonder what a former party Co-Chairman gets up to during a turbulent time like this

Oliver Dowden's social media endorsement of Rishi Sunak. The text reads: "Rishi is the best person to lead our country and unquestionably the best person to beat Labour. That's why I'm backing him to be our next Prime Minister. Ready for Rishi
Dowden’s tweet in support of Rishi was one of the first, on 8 July. It’s exactly the same as all the others because it was provided by the super-organised Sunak campaign team.

He’s ready for Rishi. You already knew this. Oliver Dowden’s social media is saturated with Sunak endorsements. If there’s no Ministerial role for our MP in September it’ll be because the other weirdo won. Sunak may be weird but if you rose during the Cameron era like Dowden, he probably looks like the nearest the Conservative Party has to a normal human being right now – the anti-chaos candidate (but wait until Dowden hears about Sunak’s actual policies – don’t think our privet hedge guy is ready for ‘Charter Cities‘).

He ‘wielded the knife’. Johnson loyalists are making a list of MPs they think were instrumental in the Prime Minister’s fall. Dowden may have missed the Pinchergate action but he’s right at the top of the list anyway. Andrew Pierce, in his breathless Johnson panegyric in the Mail says “News of his resignation came through when the PM was in Rwanda. Boris knew immediately that Dowden had planned it in advance.”

He’s mixed up in a complicated anti-semitism scandal. We don’t pretend to understand this case but if you’re a local democracy nerd you may remember that back in April a QC-led internal Conservative Party inquiry into the abuse of a Jewish Labour Party candidate standing in Hertsmere concluded with reprimands for four Conservative Councillors and a local Agent for ‘enabling anti-semitism’. Jewish News quoted the findings, saying the five accused Conservatives were “party to a personal campaign against the claimant in relation to the 2020 by-election, and which continued for many months.”

A cutting from Private Eye magazine No. 1577, 15 July - 28 July2022
From Private Eye 15-28 July 2022

According to Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column (which keeps an eye on local authority malfeasance), the Conservative Party’s disciplinary code was changed after the inquiry’s verdict to permit the reprimanded members to challenge their punishment. The Eye’s assumption is that, as Co-Chairman of the Party at the time, Dowden would likely have been well aware of these changes. Apparently the appeals lodged by the party members are ongoing.

Minister for junk mail

Careful, your MP wants your email address

Spam

Oliver Dowden, MP for Hertsmere, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and unlikely attack dog in the Culture Wars, has a new, slightly demeaning job. He’s been tasked with adding names to the Conservative Party’s email marketing list. He’s doing this by attacking some Labour politicians for supporting the RMT’s strike action. Nothing new about attacking organised labour, of course, but Dowden’s approach is unusual and quite possibly unprecedented – he’s started a petition which will apparently be delivered to the opposition Labour party.

The eccentricity of this approach: a governing party – and one with a 75-seat majority in the House of Commons – petitioning the party that is currently out of power for action in an industrial dispute – will not have escaped you. But the oddball logic will become clear if you actually try to complete the petition. It’s a fake petition. You’ll find that, although you’re offered two options (condemn the strikes, don’t condemn the strikes), whichever way you vote you’ll be required to provide an email address and agree to receive email ‘about the Party’s campaigns and opportunities to get involved’. Boom, you’re on the list.

This kind of data collection mechanic disguised as a campaign has, as you’d expect, been imported from US politics, where Donald Trump and others have been building huge email and telephone databases and surveilling voters via similar devices for years. In this country, political parties are governed by data protection regulations just like other organisations and this petition looks legit but you may want to take your usual precautions against the kind of epic quantities of spam that political parties routinely produce.

Top tip: if you have one, use a special email address when you’re obliged to sign up for junk mail in this way – we have one which deletes all email before we even see it.

And don’t forget that the Conservatives have form when it comes to dodgy online marketing. There was that time they broke Twitter’s rules by pretending to be a ‘fact checking’ organisation and that other time when they were fined £10,000 for breaking data protection law.

Of course, whether it’s a dignified thing for a prominent politician – one who until not long ago was an actual Minister of the Crown (he was replaced by Nadine Dorries) – to be grubbing around for qualified leads for the party’s junk mail department is another matter – one we’ll leave to Mr Dowden’s conscience.

If you’d like to sign it, the ‘Stop the Strikes’ petition is on the Conservative Party web site. The Information Commissioner has detailed guidance for the use of personal data by political parties.

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?

Culture wars update

Woke police officer

One of the things we’ve done on this blog – with, let’s face it, limited consistency – is keep an eye on the public statements and Ministerial actions of our MP Oliver Dowden who, these days, is Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio (we started, in fact, under his predecessor, James Clappison, a long-serving MP who had represented Hertsmere since the creation of the constituency in 1992).

Although Mr Dowden is currently without formal Ministerial responsibilities (his role does allow him to attend Cabinet meetings, although without a portfolio to represent he’ll probably just do a crossword or something) you might be forgiven for thinking that he ought to adopt the title Minister for the Culture Wars. He’s all over it. The Google alert that keeps us up to date with Oliver Dowden’s business is essentially all culture wars, all the time these days.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that the Co-Chairman’s message to electors ahead of the 5 May local elections, which you can read on Conservative Home, is heavy on the culture wars and includes two uses of the word ‘woke’ (‘woke warriors’ and ‘woke vanity projects’).

We’re not 100% sure we want to reduce this blog to a chronological account of Mr Dowden’s statements about statues, unisex toilets, woke street names and so on. But it does seem worthwhile to record the fact that a prominent MP, once confidant to a Prime Minister and until recently a full Minister of the Crown, can be so diminished in office as to be obliged to churn out talking points for Facebook (Mr Dowden is so far silent on David Attenborough’s woke dinosaur, though).

So, let’s get it over with. Oliver Dowden’s latest Culture Wars sortie relates to guidance apparently given to police forces to use gender-neutral language when addressing the public (we can’t find this guidance online, although the Mail’s claim is that it was obtained by a FOI request to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire constabularies). The Minister for Woke’s statement on the matter says that the police should be arresting crims and

…not wasting time trying to condition officers who extend a basic courtesy to the people they serve.

Oliver Dowden MP, quoted in The Mail, 16 April 2022

It’s not clear what Dowden means by ‘condition’ but the quote has surfaced in multiple outlets, from GB News to The Sun, to The Daily Star to Kremlin-funded RT (recently banned from UK TV by Ofcom, as you’ll remember, but obviously still on the mailing list for these press lines). We’re curious as to how this happens. How is a line like this distributed? It’s not contained in an official press release that we’ve been able to find. Is there an email d-list? We’re naive about the ways of Government press offices. Can you enlighten us?

Anyway, our bet is that Mr Dowden’s interest in the Culture Wars will sharply decline immediately the council elections are out of the way in a few weeks (no elections in Hertsmere this year, though, remember, so don’t get excited).

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.

Oyster cards at the ready

Number 41On 30 November last year, Oliver Dowden, our MP, announced on his web site that he’d secured a promise from the Department of Transport that the Oyster scheme would be extended to Radlett and Potters Bar (both in his constituency, of course – but the extension will also take in St Albans and go out all the way to Luton Airport). This is, of course, unreservedly good news. It’ll make it easier and cheaper to get into town and it’ll give commuters an alternative to costly season tickets.

But – forgive us – we’re sceptical. We’ve heard this before (in 2016, for instance). In fact we’ve heard it several times before. And on each occasion, of course, it’s not actually happened. Our MP is presenting this as a ‘victory’ and the Minister has apparently promised that it will happen this year (2019) but, having followed this story for years, now, we’re going to believe it when we see it. And, in the meantime, we’re going to run a countdown on our Twitter account. Or rather a count-up. It’s been 41 days since we heard that Oyster is coming to Radlett. We’ll keep counting until it actually arrives. Let’s see how long it takes.

Your MP voted against admitting 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees

Oliver Dowden, Conservative MP for Hertsmere, is loyal. He’s never rebelled against the government, so we shouldn’t be surprised that, on 25 April, he voted against an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would have allowed 3,000 child refugees currently stuck on the Continent entry to the UK. Only five Conservatives voted for the amendment: Geoffrey Cox, Tania Mathis, Stephen Phillips, Will Quince and David Warburton. The amendment, tabled by Lord Dubs in the House of Lords, was rejected 294 to 276, giving a majority of 18.