Spare a thought for the left-behind

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

Honestly, you have to feel for our MP. Almost the definition of ‘left behind’. The man whose early resignation threw the switch for the final Johnson meltdown and one of the first to come out for Rishi in the leadership contest, he’s been silent on all platforms since before the ‘mini-budget’. The mini-budget that seems to have confirmed everything he and #TeamRishi said would happen if Truss won.

He and the other non-headbangers in the Parliamentary party must be grinding their teeth as Britain turns awkwardly, like a burning airship in a black and white film, and descends into a whole new economic category. Borrowing costs for the UK government are now higher than for the ‘PIIGS’, the nations stricken by the European debt crisis ten years ago. Larry Summers, former United States Treasury Secretary, calls this new category ‘submerging’, which you’ve got to admit is funny, but also captures the dark truth of Britain’s rapidly shifting status.

Historians tell us that Britain’s decline as an economic and geopolitical power can in part be attributed to the fact that the country was the first to industrialise, the first to marry capitalism with the modern nation-state. To simplify, with capitalism it’s first-in, first-out. Truss and Kwarteng seem to be almost desperate to confirm the theory, to accelerate Britain’s passage from economic Premier League titan to shabby Championship has-been.

So the question, for a Remainer Tory of the old school (or at least a school fairly closely associated with the old school) like Oliver Dowden, concerned with the ancient verities of fiscal probity and economic competence, is when to move, when to put your head above the parapet.

The risks are obviously enormous – if he goes public with criticism of the Truss-Kwarteng supply-side suicide-pact and, by some chance, the regime scrapes through and is still in office in the New Year, Dowden’s one-way ticket to outer darkness will be confirmed. But if he goes early, sets out his stall cleverly and Truss-Kwarteng are driven into retreat (or even out of office) he could be well-placed for a senior role in the clean-up team.

In an office at BBC Broadcasting House, left to right, Cllr Morris Bright, Leader of Hertsmere Borough Council, Oliver Dowden MP, Tim Davie, Director-General of the BBC - photo from Oliver Dowden's web site
A pointless meeting

In the meantime, Dowden does have some things to be getting on with. The former Culture Secretary managed to get a pointless meeting with BBC boss Tim Davie about the proposed sale of BBC Elstree. According to his website, Dowden and the Hertsmere Councillor he took with him have secured a committment from the BBC to continue making Eastenders at the studio. As far as we know, the BBC’s plan has always been to sell the studio and lease back the Eastenders set. The BBC’s commercial arm has also just signed a lease for the use of other studios at the site. There was never any threat to take the soap elsewhere so the ‘commitment’ is essentially meaningless. Classic Dowden.

In party news, the antisemitism row in the Hertsmere Conservative party rumbles on, although we still don’t pretend to understand it. A councillor who was reprimanded has resigned from the party. Dowden’s role in the mess relates to the fact that he was Party Co-Chairman when the rules were retro-actively changed to allow the five members involved to appeal their reprimands.

Twiddling his thumbs in a new era

It’s over. Oliver Dowden has gone home and put the kettle on.

Oliver Dowden MP wearing a Covid mask in a cyberpunk virtual world
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

So, a little time has passed, a dynastic shift has occurred. Liz Truss, apparently unpopular with her MPs and unexpectedly not quite as popular with the party membership as she was hoping, is our new Prime Minister.

The composition of Truss’s cabinet is now settled and we know that our MP is, at least for the time being, profoundly on the outside. His face doesn’t fit. Although Oliver Dowden managed to jump pretty deftly from the embarrassment of the Theresa May confidence-and-supply interregnum to the high-octane clusterfuck of the Johnson plague years (Dowden, along with Jenrick and Sunak, formed the ‘gang of three’ MPs who were first to support Johnson for leader in June 2019). A third jump to the Truss camp would seem to be unlikely to say the least.

Gritted teeth, much?

Oliver Dowden’s start in Parliament came via modernising social liberal David Cameron while in opposition and not via the sixth-form debating society centred on Truss. Going to Cambridge must have seemed like a good idea at the time but it meant he missed his induction into the Ayn Rand reading club and the Friedrich Hayek fan club.

Being among the first MPs to endorse Rishi for the leadership won’t have helped, of course, but this is more about doctrine. The clique that has just inherited the great offices of state is united by a comicbook version of market fundamentalism that Dowden doesn’t share. And is it just us or did Dowden never look entirely comfortable on the Culture Wars frontline?

Anyway, it’s safe to say that we’re in for an awkward period of trying to smash the square peg of a shrinking, top-heavy, post-crisis economy into the round hole of Singaporean hyper-capitalism, trying to fix an explosion of poverty and failing social systems using the thoroughly unsuitable tools of vintage turbo-Thatcherism. It’s going to be intense.

And Oliver Dowden will be watching it all from the back benches.

There now follows a consideration of two terrible books

It’s not unusual for a Prime Minister to come to power with a detailed written record of their beliefs in print. Perhaps a little less common for it to have happened twice. We can confirm (seriously, we spent our own money researching this) that the two books written by Liz Truss and her University pals are not what you’d call unputdownable. But these turgid texts—animated by a kind of Poundland Thatcherism that you will recognise—are now both best-sellers and will surely be reprinted.

After the Coalition, from 2011, is the more detailed work—for an audience of wonks and insiders. The urgent premise is that the coalition is a damaging obstruction and that the Conservative Party ought to plan to dismantle it sharpish and return to the fundamentals. It offers a systematic—if largely recycled—trans-Atlantic response to the financial crisis that, on the face of it, would rebuild the system that caused it in the first place. A vision of a ‘muscular’, confident, entrepreneurial nation. All the greatest hits are here—longer prison sentences, family values, hard work, deregulation, enthusiastic financialisation. We’d be the first to acknowledge the need to range widely in the search for solutions to the grim catalogue of crises we face—we should be open to new ideas from all sources. But there aren’t any here. It’s a dirge.

Britannia Unchained was published a year later and doesn’t really update the earlier text but takes a different approach—international models are presented. Some eccentric readings of Mulroney’s Canada, Israel’s energy sector. There’s a quite interesting analysis of New Labour in government. It’s substantially shorter and written for a wider audience—this is the one to get if you want the quick overview. Here we’re still years from the Brexit referendum and Cameron hasn’t even made his pledge to give electors a yes-no vote on EU membership yet but the book is weirdly animated by the spirit of Brexit—a kind of beligerent foreshadowing. It’s the book from which this quote, regularly disapprovingly shared, comes:

Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.

The quote is the introduction to Chapter four, Work Ethic

But it’s full of this kind of stuff. Grafters are idealised and the cohorts of the lazy, the unemployed, the feckless and the unproductive are demonised and abused. It’s a grim text, unrelieved by humanity of any kind and exhausting to read.