Whither Dowden?

Our MP was way out in front with his resignation from the Johnson government and may have been plotting against the PM for a while

It seems like a long time ago but it’s actually only a month since Oliver Dowden, MP for Hertsmere, resigned as Conservative Party Co-Chairman. And you’d be forgiven for forgetting that it wasn’t actually Pinchergate – the most recent crisis of Boris Johnson’s leadership – that induced his departure; it was the previous one – the catastrophic 23 June double byelection loss in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton.

Dowden’s resignation letter was a shock at the time and seemed out of character for such a loyal soldier: a short and blunt critique of the Prime Minister, out of the blue – “We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility…” A few weeks on it seems like a relatively mild intervention and, of course, it was only a preview of a flood of over 60 letters, sent by ministers and advisers and PPSs, in the three days between 5 and 7 July, once Johnson had provided the final push by trying to defend his terrible friend Pincher.

And we’ve all already forgotten the gossip that Dowden had been plotting with his old boss David Cameron (in an ‘elite Mayfair club’ natch) to ‘destabilise’ Boris Johnson after the catastrophic May local elections.

The flurry of letters – the largest number of resignations submitted in a single day in party history – was a hyper-modern, social media affair. Almost all of them were published exclusively on Twitter – and there was some entertainment. Some were unreadable, some weren’t even letters, just hurried tweets or Facebook posts (we do wonder who archives all this official correspondence). Some were written up by local reporters. Some came very very soon after their senders had replaced resigning ministers (Michelle Donelan was Education Minister for 35 hours and has promised to return her Ministerial redundancy money). Liam Fox managed to resign even though he hasn’t been a minister for years and recently appointed Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi hedged his bets by carefully sending a strongly-worded letter addressed to no one that wasn’t actually a resignation (and he’s consequently still in his job).

Meanwhile, Dowden came out for Rishi Sunak on 8 July, right at the beginning of the process, sharing the boilerplate social media endorsement given to him by Rishi’s team.

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
Oliver Dowden’s social media endorsement of Rishi Sunak

Dowden’s support for Sunak is not surprising. The former Chancellor seems to be the closest of the two surviving leadership candidates to the outlook of the pre-Johnson, pre-populist, pre-chaos administration of Theresa May – the panicky interregnum in which Sunak first saw office – and to the seemingly unending nightmare of the Cameron years in which Dowden did. Our MP’s journey – from Cameroonian moderniser to Johnsonite Culture Wars enforcer always seemed an uncomfortable one. Perhaps in supporting Sunak he is rejoining the Tory mainstream.

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