Here’s how Oliver Dowden voted in the free vote on access to home abortions

An important change to the law during lockdown made it possible for women to get abortion pills (early medical abortion) prescribed over the phone (the legislation calls this ‘telemedicine’) and then to have the pills, which are taken in two doses, 48 hours apart, sent to a home address (this is for abortions earlier than 10 weeks).

The government proposed removing this pandemic provision and returning to in-person appointments from 29 August this year. Women’s groups, medical charities and professional bodies, like the Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, lobbied to keep the at-home provision, because women like the convenience and choice it provides but also because it’s been shown to help vulnerable women – who might, for instance, be unable to get to a clinic – to get safe abortions. BPAS Chief executive Clare Murphy said, in a press release:

We’ve long known there are women who really struggle to access clinic services. They are sometimes women in very complex situations, very vulnerable women. Women in coercive relationships, for example, found it difficult to access clinics without their partner knowing. These women either turn to illegal methods or they present to us very late.

Quoted by BBC News.

Earlier this month Conservative peer Baroness Liz Sugg tabled an amendment to the Health and Care Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, seeking to make the at-home service permanent (incidentally Liz Sugg was Head of Operations in David Cameron’s Number 10 PR team while Oliver Dowden was Deputy Chief of Staff – they share an organogram here. Cameron moved Sugg upstairs on his resignation in 2016). Because abortion is considered to be a matter of conscience, Government whips permitted a free vote on Sugg’s amendment in the Commons, which took place yesterday, 30 March 2022. MPs voted in favour of the amendment 212 to 184, so the provision will continue and women won’t have to go to a surgery to get the first dose.

MP for Hertsmere Oliver Dowden is one of the 184 MPs – almost all them Conservatives – who voted against retaining the service.

Graphic showing House of Commons voting in the Health and Care Bill - Permitted Locations for Abortion Treatment on 30 March 2022 - Aye 212, No 184.
Voting details from They Work for You

This vote can’t tell us much about Dowden’s attitude to abortion – he has a mixed record. Anti-abortion lobby group Right To Life maintains a web site that tracks votes for every UK legislator (this approach to holding legislators to account seems to be becoming more popular – it’s an import from US special-interest politics where it is widespread). Oliver Dowden’s page shows six abstentions and a total of three votes for or against on ‘right to life’ issues (votes are labelled green if they’re in agreement with Right to Life policy and red if not).

Dowden’s background as a hard-working member of David Cameron’s broadly socially-liberal administration might suggest support for a woman’s right not to be pregnant but his more recent enthusiastic involvement in the culture wars (statues, hedges, Maoism and so on) suggests otherwise. So it’s inconclusive.

Oliver Dowden’s Parliamentary voting record on issues of interest to anti-abortion group Right to Life.

Right to Life themselves are, as you’d expect, unhappy with the outcome of the vote. A spokesperson said, in a press release:

The group of MPs who have voted for this amendment have voted to remove vital safeguards including an in-person appointment with a medical professional. This will put thousands more women at risk from ‘DIY’ home abortion services, by removing a routine in-person consultation that allows medical practitioners to certify gestation and recognise potential coercion or abuse, ‘at-home’ abortion has presented serious risks to women and girls in abusive situations.

Quoted by the Catholic News Agency.

It’s interesting to note that both sides of the argument depend on appeals to the vulnerability of women in coercive or abusive relationships to defend their positions. Can they both be right?

The BBC has a detailed article about the law and the debate in Parliament. They Work for You has the voting details. More about Early Medical Abortion on the BPAS web site.

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.

Oliver Dowden – horticulture warrior

A hedge, left, and Oliver Dowden MP

Our MP, Oliver Dowden, former Minister who is now co-chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio, has been walking the leafy streets of his constituency and has hit on a striking metaphor for the values he and his party stand for:

For me, the privet hedges of suburbia are the privet hedges of a free people.

Oliver Dowden’s speech to the Conservative Party 2022 Spring conference.

Dowden is serious about this. He considers it his mission as co-chairman “to defend those values and those freedoms.” The minister’s expanded role as Minister for Suburban Boundary Planting is real and rooted (sorry) in an idea of freedom that goes back some decades – at least as far as Margaret Thatcher’s adoption of a more individualistic model of Conservatism in the early 80s, pushing aside the ‘one-nation’ version that had prevailed for almost a century before it.

In 1982, to drive home the message, the Conservative party adopted an olympic torch of freedom as party emblem (replaced with an oak tree during David Cameron’s modernising spell as leader). Dowden uses the words ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ seven times in all in his conference speech and it’s not just hedges; it’s Europe under threat from Russia too.