Has Oliver Dowden finally joined the club?

When you resign as a Minister you have to wait three months before you can start to take money from a hedge fund

Looking out through a revolving door at the entrance to an office building, the street visible outside - by Bradley Huchteman on Flickr
A revolving door – Bradley Huchteman

Some might say that one of the good things about our MP, across the seven years since he was first elected, has been his apparent distance from the unsavoury cronyism and money-grubbing that many in his party enjoy. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t come into politics via the Eton -> Oxford -> City of London pipeline. He started without the thick address book of boardroom connections and pals in Belgravia investment funds that so many old-school Tory MPs rely on.

We won’t claim to have kept a very close eye on Mr Dowden’s entries in the register of members’ interests but we can’t recall any dodgy sources of funding or spectacular bungs or ‘dark money’ – and, of course, he entered Parliament years after the expenses scandal and decades after the torrid era of cash for questions and the golden age of Tory sleaze. Clean hands.

So Dowden’s constituents haven’t had to worry about all the mysterious payments, holidays on private islands, research trips to exotic locations or even the usual long list of directorships and advisory roles that other Tory MPs go in for. He’s been a hard-working representative for Hertsmere and he’s not been closely associated with any of the scandals and screw-ups that have ripped through his party and the government in the last few years. Perhaps it was naive to expect a rising home counties MP to stay out of all this indefinitely, though. The pressure on any MP, especially when you’ve just voluntarily given up your Ministerial salary, must be real.

Dowden’s latest entry in the register records what might be an important rite of passage – his first decent-sized payment from a hedge fund. £8,398 from Caxton Associates LP in Berkeley Square for twelve hours of ‘policy advice’ provided between 24 September and 24 October 2022 (that’s an hourly rate of £700).

The dates here are important. When a minister (or a senior civil servant) wants to take up a paying job or a role that might cause a conflict of interest, they first have to consult with the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, ‘an advisory non-departmental public body’, sponsored by the Cabinet Office. Oliver Dowden evidently did this after his resignation as Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio on 24 June. The committee’s advice (a seven-page letter) makes it clear that there would have to be a clear three months between stepping down as a Minister and taking up the Caxton role. You won’t need us to calculate for you that 24 September is exactly three months after Dowden’s resignation.

Of course, this is also why Dowden’s contract with Caxton ended on 24 October, the day before he took up his present role as a Cabinet Office Minister in Rishi Sunak’s cabinet.

So why would a hedge fund want a back-bench MP on the payroll, even if only for a month? ‘Duh’, you might say. But, in this case, the answer’s in the kind of hedge fund we’re talking about. Caxton Associates is a ‘global macro hedge fund’, a fund whose job is closely connected to politics. Investopedia says:

Global macro hedge funds are actively managed funds that attempt to profit from broad market swings caused by political or economic events. Global macro hedge funds are market bets around economic events. Investors use financial instruments to create short or long positions based on the outcomes they predict as a result of their research. A market bet on an event can cover a wide variety of assets and instruments including options, futures, currencies, index funds, bonds, and commodities. The goal is to find the right mix of assets to maximize returns if the predicted outcome occurs.

Investopedia

All hedge funds protect investors from risk by making bets that will pay off if things go wrong. Macro hedge funds like Caxton protect their clients from the policies and actions of governments – particularly when they affect interest rates, currency movements, equity and bond markets – by making clever bets against them. Some hedge funds are said to have made enormous sums from betting against (‘shorting’) the pound and the UK economy after Kwasi Kwarteng threw everything in the air.

Caxton Associates’ boss, Andrew Law, is a major Tory donor who supported Liz Truss’s campaign for the leadership and happens also to have hosted the famous 23 September cocktail party – on the evening of the mini budget – that Kwarteng attended. It’s assumed that Dowden wasn’t invited to that party, of course, although his engagement with Law’s hedge fund began on the next day.

How all this works is a mystery to us. How Dowden, a card-carrying member of the anti-growth coalition, a Sunak supporter who vocally opposed Liz Truss, winds up advising a hedge fund that supported her campaign, literally the day after the catastrophic mini budget, is likely to remain mysterious. The ACOBA letter says it was ‘updated on 22 November’ but it’s not clear when Dowden informed the committee that he intended to take up the Caxton job. Perhaps he applied for the job after his resignation from Johnson’s cabinet but before he made his opposition to team Truss’s voodoo economics public. Perhaps hedge funds don’t care much about the political complexion of the politicians they pay.

We’re tempted to speculate that a short period out of office like this – Dowden’s first since he was appointed Paymaster General in July 2019 – offers an opportunity for a generous supporter like Andrew Law to funnel some funds into an MP’s bank account in a way they haven’t been allowed to during his period in Ministerial office. It’s certainly hard to imagine Dowden sitting down to provide twelve hours of policy advice during that torrid month.

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

And this is before we even get to Pierce Protocols Limited, an interesting ‘art services’ firm founded in 2005 that provides publishing and technology services for artists and is also involved in the febrile world of NFTs (cryptographically unique artworks), employing 66 people and turning over £19.8M in 2021. Under the brand name Heni the firm publishes monographs and editions of prints by famous artists like Gerhard Richter, Gilbert & George and Sabine Moritz. Most of the company’s income comes from the editions. In 2021 there was a modest profit. The company has also provided the crypto technology behind Damien Hirst’s latest stunt The Currency.

According to the register, beginning on the same day as his payments from the hedge fund (remember the three-month rule?), Pierce Protocols began to pay Oliver Dowden £5,000 per month, for eight to ten hours of work (still a pretty decent hourly rate of between £500 and £625), ‘until further notice’, although the payments also stopped when our MP was appointed to the Sunak cabinet (there’s an ACOBA letter about this job too). We’re inclined to use the word ‘mysterious’ again here because, well, to be honest, the Damien Hirst-Oliver Dowden connection is not one we expected to be writing about right now. We certainly would not have guessed, back when Dowden was walking the leafy streets of his constituency, eulogising privet hedges, that a role in the trendy art world was in his future. But perhaps getting a former Culture Secretary on the books might be considered a win for any business at the cutting edge of the art business and shouldn’t be considered mysterious at all.