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.

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