Dowden’s new vocation

Our MP has been grilling ministers about a new charities law – but it’s really all about the Culture Wars

The Parthenon Marbles in their current location the British Museum in London
Some of the Parthenon Marbles in their current location

The new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is now busy answering questions on behalf of the Cabinet Office but in his final days as a backbencher he was packing in the written questions. This time he was asking the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (his old gaff, of course) questions about the Charities Act 2022. As we reported a couple of weeks ago, his recent questions relate to the return of stolen artworks to their countries of origin. You’ll remember that, in a previous life, Oliver Dowden very publicly argued that artefacts brought to Britain during the colonial era should stay where they are and, in particular, in the UK’s national collections.

While Culture secretary, and in the midst of the row over statues of slavers and war criminals, he wrote to UK institutions asking them not to touch controversial items and famously threatened them with loss of funding if they considered removing or returning objects:

It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question. This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised.

Lines from Dowden’s ‘retain and explain’ letter, sent in September 2020

It looks like this is going to be an important cause for our MP – alongside the important local issues of yellow lines in Aldenham and building on the green belt. It’s not obvious why a home counties MP would want to invest much in the profoundly controversial argument between a former Imperial power and its once colonised territories. There are evidently some Culture Wars points to be won with the Tory base but it’s difficult to find a morally consistent defence for retaining the Benin Bronzes or the Parthenon sculptures. The risk of being very visibly on the wrong side of history is real.

So far Dowden has offered no positive defence for retaining the objects at all but has continued to make the odd case that returning stolen goods might be some kind of woke gesture and to repeat his demeaning statements about the fitness of the original owners of these artefacts to look after them. In the Commons two weeks ago he said “…those institutions risk facing a barrage of claims for restitution, some of which may be encouraged more by virtue signalling”, “I can assure you that if we allow this Pandora’s box to open, we will regret it for generations to come as we see those artefacts being removed to countries where they may be less safe.” (our emphasis).

Meanwhile it must be a colossal wind-up for the former Culture Minister that institutions – including his own alma mater – are busy shipping artefacts home or making agreements to do so (Oxford, Cambridge and Aberdeen Universities, The Horniman Museum, Glasgow City Council and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter to name just the most recent). Governments are acting too – a huge agreement between the German and Nigerian governments links development funding and trade with the return of over a thousand bronzes.

The government’s stance is intriguing but also puzzling, not least because it obviously hasn’t occurred to anyone that clinging to colonial-era loot, talking down to allies and potential trading partners (and Commonwealth members) and using shallow legalistic defences to profoundly moral appeals is not very ‘Global Britain’ and might just contribute to Britain’s growing isolation.

Dowden’s questions to the DCMS relate to a new law regulating charities. The law itself is not concerned with stolen artworks directly but the Charities Act 2022 introduces a new freedom for charitable bodies to to seek authorisation if they feel compelled ‘by a moral obligation’ to make a transfer of charity property (called in the act an ‘ex-gratia payment’).

This was meant to allow charities more flexibility in dealing with awkward bequests and the law, passed back in February, has not yet come into force. In the meantime, though, it’s occurred to ministers that this new flexibility could allow museums (which are usually charities) to apply to return stolen artworks.

Dowden’s fear is obviously that we could see a flood of applications from woke charity trustees who want to return items to their countries of origin on spurious ‘moral’ grounds. Current legislation makes it illegal for the national collections to do this, so the government has already decided to delay the implementation of the new law while they think about “the implications for the national collections.”

Dowden asked the Minister “if she will make an assessment of the potential impact of the implementation of sections 15 and 16 of the Charities Act 2022 on the ability of trustees of national museums […] to return collection items if they are motivated by a moral obligation.” What’s fascinating – and a bit dispiriting – about all this is that, for our MP, ‘moral obligation’ is a euphemism for ‘shallow woke virtue signalling’.

Is this going to be a big story in the two years between now and the next general election? Probably not. Will it keep Oliver Dowden in the news for a hot-button Culture Wars issue? Quite possibly.

And he’s back in the room…

Oliver Dowden’s progress around the fringes of the Cabinet continues. This time he’s Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

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

The new Prime Minister’s cabinet is coming together. Oliver Dowden has moved sideways. Bringing his sequence up to date: Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office (9 January 2018 – 24 July 2019), Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office (24 July 2019 – 13 February 2020), Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (13 February 2020 – 15 September 2021), Minister without Portfolio and Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party (15 September 2021 – 24 June 2022), Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (25 October 2022-)

So far the only full ministerial role on the list is the Culture job – a position created by John Major in 1992 and expanded along the way to accommodate media, sport, the Olympics, the amorphous ‘digital’ and, more recently, the Culture Wars. It was in this role that Dowden was first asked to take on woke street names and unisex toilets (our Culture Wars coverage is here). Also when he took up the cause of the British Museum and the stolen artefacts.

So now our MP is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It’s a sinecure. One of the roles used to accommodate ministers a leader might need later. To be honest we’re a bit disappointed. We thought Dowden was due a bigger role in a Sunak Cabinet – he was among the first MPs to come out in support of the new PM and he bust a gut campaigning for him the first time round.

But, because the role has no particular function, its holder can choose to focus on whatever they want – provided the boss is happy. A civil servant looks after the Duchy’s enormous property portfolio these days, so Dowden will be able to take up any cause he fancies. We’ll be interested to see if he returns to the fight to keep the stolen Benin Bronzes in London.

Are the Tories about to go full Berlusconi?

The Bungafication of the Conservative Party

Is it possible that the Conservative Party is going to recycle its last Prime Minister, the one who was kicked out amidst multiple scandals after sixty of his ministers resigned in despair? Yes it is.

A composite image showing Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi and British politician Boris Johnson side by side, both covering their faces with their palms
The Brotherhood of Party Animals

SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE. Sunak has achieved the 100 nominations he needs to go through to the members’ vote, according to his supporters, but he’s not said he’ll stand yet. Seems likely he will, though, since close allies, including Oliver Dowden, are tweeting their support. Johnson lags behind but, according to the lists kept by those in the know, he’s still in second place with MPs (and he’s back from the Dominican Republic). In a twist we probably should have anticipated, according to one reporter, Tory members are pressuring their MPs to support Johnson, in some cases threatening them with deselection. Penny Mordaunt, currently in a pretty poor third place, is the first to say she’s standing. A lot could change over the weekend, though.

Screenshot of betting for Conservative leader at 2pm on 21 October 2022

FRIDAY’S POST. To be clear, after an early surge in support Thursday night, Boris Johnson has now settled to second-favourite to replace Liz Truss as leader with the bookmakers, behind his nemesis Rishi Sunak. The insiders tracking MPs’ support for the likely candidates also have Johnson second behind Sunak (Cautious Conservative Home, more gung-ho Guido Fawkes). Paul Goodman, grizzled observer of the party, says Johnson is unlikely to pass the nomination threshold. In case you were wondering, the best you’ll get on Oliver Dowden is 200-1 – and his odds are drifting. Save your money. He’s still firmly on and is apparently busy surveying MPs about their support for the former Chancellor. Meanwhile, our conscientious MP still has his head down and has been asking technical questions of the DCMS. Always fascinating to note that the ordinary business of Parliament goes on, no matter what else is happening.

As we often say here, we’re not insiders. We’re not in the torrid WhatsApp groups. We just watch the news like you do. So we can’t be sure that the Tories will embrace full Bungafication and appoint Johnson again. Some red wall MPs have convinced themselves only Johnson can save their seats. Members, ever divorced from reality, are obviously up for it. Donors seem keen too.

Boris Johnson is obviously not Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian tycoon’s rap sheet is a yard long, he’s a fraud and a serial abuser. He’s been expelled from and re-entered politics half a dozen times but, remarkably, he’s returning to government and he’s embroiled in another potentially career-ending scandal as we write.

But Johnson’s debt to the original political party animal is evident. His resilience in the face of scandal, his flexibility with regard to the truth and his jaw-dropping readiness to brazen out catastrophes political, legal and parental is pure Berlusconi. As is his style of ‘governing-as-campaigning’ – for leaders of the Berlusconi-Johnson variety, there’s no steady period of heads-down government between campaigns. It’s all-campaigning-all-the-time.

The Economist's cover for October 22 - 28 2022, with an illustration showing UK Prime Minister Liz Truss as Britannia holding huge fork loaded with spaghetti. The headline reads 'Welcome to Britaly'

We’re not the only ones to see the resemblance to Italian politics in the current crisis. The Economist’s latest cover is headed ‘Welcome to Britaly’ and the leader article finds a close resemblance to recent Italian history: “A country of political instability, low growth and subordination to the bond markets.” The Italians themselves are furious about the comparison, which they say is insulting (although it mostly seems to be the spaghetti they’re unhappy with). There are jokes about the insertion of a technocratic caretaker Prime Minister (remember when Merkel and the European Commission removed Berlusconi from power? Brexit took that option off the table). People are calling Jeremy Hunt ‘the British Mario Draghi‘.

Bringing Johnson back would surely complete the analogy. Buona fortuna Gran Bretagna!

Regime chaos

Labour MP Chris Bryant took this picture of the chaos in the voting lobby of the House of Commons on 19 October 2022
Labour MP Chris Bryant photographed the chaos in the lobbies

The entertaining, not to say South-American, scenes in the Commons last night did not cover the Mother of Parliaments in glory. Politics nerds will enjoy the irony, though, that the chaos was actually caused by Ed Miliband, whose canny last-minute anti-fracking bill put the government on the spot.

If Miliband’s motion had succeeded, Parliament would have had to consider legislation to ban fracking all together – an attempt by Labour to ‘take control of the order paper’, to quote a Tory whip. Ruth Edwards, Conservative MP for Rushcliffe, put it well when she said in the house that the motion “enabled the opposition to force colleagues to choose between voting against our manifesto and voting to lose the whip.”

Dozens of Tory MPs, including ministers, refused the choice, and abstained, exposing themselves, in principle, to losing the whip. MPs, on the other hand, representing constituencies affected by fracking, who supported the government in the vote have now, of course, exposed themselves to the anger of their constituents. Talk about a cleft stick. Clever Ed.

Our MP, Oliver Dowden, did manage to squeeze through the chaos to cast his vote against the Labour motion and thus in favour of fracking. Hertsmere is at least a hundred miles from the nearest proposed fracking site and, in fact, the geology of our region means there’s no risk of fracking here ever, so what he was really voting for was fracking in other people’s back yards.

Dowden didn’t speak in the short debate and wasn’t to be seen in the lobbies when reporters were looking for opinions (there was no shortage of opinions). And although the beleaguered Prime Minister has begun to fill the gaps in her cabinet with political opponents – member and famous chancer Grant Shapps is now Home Secretary – it doesn’t look like Dowden’s phone has been ringing off the hook.

”I love the Benin bronzes”

“I think they properly reside in the British Museum…”

We might have been wrong about our MP. He might be a Culture Warrior after all.

(It seems odd to be writing about ancient art while the nation descends into chaos but the business of Parliament goes on and the former Culture Minister has been on his feet in the Commons).

When you’re a Minister on the way up you’re often required to earnestly throw yourself into supporting the most ridiculous policies. To stand in front of a camera with a straight face and endorse absolute rubbish as if it were your own very splendid idea and one you’d die for if called upon to do so.

Bracelet, Edo artist, 17th-18th century – Smithsonian

This is how I read Oliver Dowden’s resolute opposition to the return of stolen artworks, when he made the case during his time as Culture Secretary. It seemed obvious. To suggest that museums in Britain should retain works like the Parthenon friezes and the Benin bronzes, often stolen in the most brutal circumstances or by subterfuge is a logical and ethical solecism. Surely this was just a bit of populist cant for the friendly press?

The Benin bronzes, in particular, surely provide the ugliest case study. The circumstances of their theft, by British soldiers, the fact that essentially the whole legacy of the culture that produced them was removed by force and distributed to the capital cities of Europe and the USA. Keeping them here would be indefensible.

For over 120 years, the only way for a Nigerian to see this extraordinary evidence of their own history has been to travel to London or Berlin and visit the institutions complicit in its theft. It’s unsupportable.

The pressure for return is not new, of course. You might be old enough to remember that a campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens was begun over forty years ago by Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri. Calls from the Nigerian government for the return of the bronzes were made in the 1970s. Over the years UK governments have responded by introducing legislation that legally prevents institutions from returning looted treasures.

Some governments and institutions have begun to act. The Smithsonian in Washington DC has returned all 29 of the Benin artworks in its collection. The Horniman museum has agreed to return its collection of 72 bronzes, as have museums in Cambridge and Aberdeen. In Germany federal and state governments and museums have signed an ambitious agreement with the Nigerian government for the return of over 1,000 pieces. The pressure is building.

For the British government, though, in the era of chaotic populism and theatrical anti-wokery, return is still off the agenda. And the issue of ownership and return has been rolled up with the question of ‘contested heritage‘. For the Culture Warriors, tipping slavers’ statues into the harbour and changing colonial-era street names is basically the same as returning artworks to the places they were made. Unthinkable.

But what’s fascinating about this is that it looks like Dowden actually meant it. My assumption that his opposition to returning artefacts was just an eager minister doing his job was wrong. He actually opposes the return of the bronzes. We know this because he’s used his very first opportunity to stand up in the House of Commons in this session, as a free agent with no ministerial obligations, to raise the issue. There was a debate on the issue in the Lords. Dowden asks:

We are very blessed in this nation to have world-class museums. They are museums of the world, and the world comes to them. One of the bulwarks they have against constant claims of restitution is both the British Museum Act 1963 and the National Heritage Act 1983, and I am aware that there will be a debate in the other place about changes to the 1983 Act. Can I ask the Leader of the House whether we can have a debate in this place so that Members have an opportunity to express their support for that legislation? Otherwise, those institutions risk facing a barrage of claims for restitution, some of which may be encouraged by virtue signalling. I can assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that if we allow this Pandora’s box to open, we will regret it for generations to come as we see such artefacts being removed to countries where they may be less safe.

(Dowden’s question: HC Deb, 13 October 2022, c275)

And, of course, with our current government – such as it is – he’s pushing at an open door. Even the profoundly demeaning and condescending construction “…removed to countries where they may be less safe” apparently elicited nods around the chamber and the approval of the current Minister Penny Mordaunt. She says the government has no plans to revisit the act.

Dowden’s specific fear, in raising the acts of Parliament, is that they represent the final line of defence for institutions like the British Museum, which holds over 900 Benin bronzes. When your museum is stocked so comprehensively with material that doesn’t belong to you, it’s vital to be able to point to the law of the land in your defence. For decades the British Museum has been able to refer to the 1963 British Museum act, for instance, in saying roughly “listen, guys, we’d love to send your stuff back but it’s out of our hands, we just can’t do it. It would be illegal.”

Any change to the law making it easier for claims to be considered would remove that blanket protection. Each request would have to be considered on its own merits. Looting, complicity in theft, trade in stolen goods – all would become prosecutable. Curators fear that their collections would evaporate over night, that they’d lose control over the process and be left custodians of halls full of plaster casts and empty plinths. You should have thought of that when you were filling your museums with loot, we find ourselves saying.

Justice, restitution, morality? Not on your nelly, says Oliver Dowden.

The clip at the top is an edit of Dowden’s Channel 4 News appearance from American satirical show ‘Last Week Tonight’. It’s revealing because presenter John Oliver, who calls Dowden “that offensively English man”, essentially regards Dowden’s perspective as indefensible, anachronistic, immoral. The government and Conservative legislators are evidently happy for Britain to become more and more isolated on this matter.

How does Hertsmere vote?

Our constituency has only ever had three MPs: a Thatcher ally removed after he turned out to be quite possibly the greatest heel in Tory history (in a competitive field); a diligent but unremarkable backbencher, ejected to make room for a SPAD on the fast-track; and the SPAD himself

Chart showing election results in the Hertsmere constituency between 1983 and 2019. Full data at a link below the chart.
Voting in the Hertsmere Parliamentary constituency from 1983 to 2019 (full data)

This post was updated on 19 January 2024 and includes data from a 15 January YouGov opinion poll.

The chart shows 36 years of Hertsmere General Election voting, from the Thatcher high water mark of 1983 (the biggest landslide since Labour’s 1945 win) to 2019’s big result for Johnson, via that other high water mark – Blair’s even bigger 1997 landslide.

The Hertsmere Parliamentary constituency has only existed since 1983. Before it there was a constituency called South Hertfordshire that itself only lasted for three general elections. Cecil Parkinson was Hertsmere’s first MP. He had entered Parliament in the 1970 general election that brought the Conservatives under Edward Heath to power. Parkinson became a close ally of Margaret Thatcher and joined her cabinet in 1979. He moved to the new Hertsmere constituency for the 1983 election (the ‘Falklands election’), when he also ran the successful Conservative election campaign. He resigned later that year, after a particularly grim scandal and, although he had returned to the cabinet in the meantime, stepped down again on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation and left the Commons in 1992 (ennobled, of course), to be replaced in Hertsmere by James Clappison, who went on to be a popular and hard-working constituency representative – always a backbencher – for five Parliamentary terms.

Clappison was summarily dumped by his party – one of those brutal ejections that the Conservatives are fond of, for the 2015 election. History records that Hertsmere very nearly became home to one Boris Johnson. In the event, though, Johnson was installed in Uxbridge and South Ruislip and we got David Cameron adviser Oliver Dowden instead. Local boy Dowden is also a hard-working constituency MP, visible in the area and always ready to support local causes. He’s had an interesting few years, first promoted to a junior ministerial role by Theresa May. His period as Culture Secretary under Boris Johnson took in the pandemic and a pandemic bail-out for theatres and art galleries. Moved to the holding position of Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party he took up the Culture Wars with a vigour that some found surprising. In that period he famously endorsed privet hedges and took up arms against unisex toilets and woke road signs.

Boris Johnson and Oliver Dowden jumping
Johnson and Dowden jumping

For a second-tier politician, Dowden’s always been pretty close to the action (once a Number 10 staffer, always a Number 10 staffer). He was first to endorse Johnson to replace Theresa May but also first to resign as Johnson’s final crisis began. Joining #TeamRishi was another low-key masterstroke for our operator, although his return to the front bench was delayed by that weird 49-day Liz Truss thing, during which Dowden was very much on the outside (we learn that he was partying with at a hotel in Leicester Square the night before Kwasi Kwarteng’s dismissal. Schadenfreude, much?). Ultimately, of course, Sunak was choppered in by the membership and Dowden’s (quite short) period in the wilderness was over. There was some speculation at the time that he wouldn’t stand at the next general election, which can take place no later than 28 January 2025. At this writing (19 January 2024) he has not declared his candidacy but it seems likely he’ll stand.

So, back to the elections. What all the results in our chart have in common, of course, is the winner. Hertsmere has been a comfortably Conservative seat for its whole history. Even the Blair revolution, in which Labour took 418 Parliamentary seats, the largest number ever held by a UK party, couldn’t (quite) touch that and, since then, although Corbyn narrowed the gap a bit in that surprising 2017 result, the Tories are now further ahead in Hertsmere than they’ve ever been.

In some ways, the Liberals’ trajectory in the constituency since 1983 is the grimmest of all – essentially a steady fall from a quarter of the vote – and second place ahead of Labour – to less than half that and a poor third place. Among the also-rans, you can see the collapse of the far-right parties as their platforms have been absorbed by the ever-adaptable Tories.

This chart shows the Conservatives’ winning majority in Hertsmere, over the 36-year period. You can see just how close things got in 1997. It’s also interesting to note how long it’s taken the party to recover from that enormous electoral shock – essentially a whole political generation.

Chart showing the Conservative candidate's winning majority in parliamentary elections in the Hertsmere constituency between 1983 and 2019
Full data

And this chart shows turnout over the same period, a pretty steady picture that puts Hertsmere a little above the 2019 average for the UK – although roughly in line with other constituencies with a similar, older-than-average, age profile.

Chart showing turnout in parliamentary elections in the Hertsmere constituency between 1983 and 2019. Full data is in a spreadsheet linked below this graphic.
Full data

To keep the top chart simple, we’ve left out the minor parties – the levitating transcendentalists from the Natural Law Party (please watch their amazing 1994 European Parliamentary election broadcast); James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, whose programme looked pretty kooky at the time but now looks like a model of sanity; the Independent Communist candidate whose vote exceeded 2% back in 19831; Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the BNP, whose Daniel Seabrook ran once in 2010 before being rendered entirely irrelevant by UKIP.

On 15 January 2024, polling company YouGov published a big national opinion poll – commissioned by the Daily Telegraph and using the gold-standard MRP technique which involves a much bigger sample than ordinary polls and clever demographic weighting. The result induced visible terror in Tory MPs and a frenzy of recrimination in the corridors and meeting rooms. For Hertsmere the projected result is dramatic but leaves Dowden in his seat:

Chart showing election results in the Hertsmere constituency between 1983 and 2019 plus data from a January 2024 YouGov opinion poll. Full data available in a spreadsheet linked below this graphic.
Full data

In fact, if this actually happened, the Conservative margin in Hertsmere would still be slightly larger than it was in the 1997 Labour landslide. The Reform Party, aiming to stand everywhere, polls 10% in the YouGov estimate, which is interesting but, in Hertsmere, not material to the result.

The raw data, including the smaller-party numbers not shown above, is in this spreadsheet, with the graphs, in case you’re interested, you weirdos.

  1. It took us a minute to figure out that it’s actually quite unlikely that there were 1,000 Communists in Hertsmere in 1983 and much more likely that the fact that the candidate’s surname, like the winner’s, was Parkinson, contributed to his surprising vote share. ↩︎

Battle commences

A new-build housing estate in the countryside

Liz Truss’s first Prime Ministers’ Questions passed without Oliver Dowden’s presence but our MP’s definitely been pitch-rolling* for the big green belt fight

Hertsmere stays blue but only just

The Tory Party’s own Anti-Growth Coalition smells blood. Parliament is back after a long conference season break, extended by the Queen’s funeral. Labour is now an average of 30 points ahead of the Tories in national opinion polls. If there was a general election tomorrow Labour’s parliamentary majority would be over 300. Dowden would hang on to his seat but his majority in Hertsmere would be smaller even than the historic low of the 1997 Blair landslide. The weakness of the government brought about by the Chancellor’s catastrophic mini-budget hasn’t just empowered the opposition, though, it’s boosted critics inside the governing party too.

Tory backbenchers may mobilise against cuts in benefits that they can see will be disastrous, or they might decide that the NI increase that was going to fund social care must be reinstated. Let’s face it, though, what’s really got them going is the prospect of winning concessions on proposed planning reforms from the embattled front bench. The 2019 manifesto pledge to build 300,000 new homes per year – so far undelivered of course – looks like it’s about to be scrapped so the anti-growth Tories might record that as victory number one in the coming war.

It won’t be the first time Tories from the shires and the home counties have derailed planning reforms. Economic growth will always be secondary to protection of the green belt in these constituencies. Almost everyone – and especially the economically liberal end of the think tank spectrum – recognises that Britain’s bizarre and sclerotic planning regime is holding back vital infrastructure investment and improvements to the housing stock. For Tory MPs, though, this remains the ultimate third rail issue.

It seems that Tory backbenchers are also teaming up with Labour MPs in constituencies threatened with the prospect of fracking. If your response to the government’s announcement that fracking would restart was “it’ll never happen” give yourself a pat on the back.

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

Oliver Dowden is out of ministerial office and, for the time being, out of favour. He continues to use his time out in the cold to restore his bond with Hertsmere constituents in time for the general election. He’s defending the green belt on Twitter and insisting on local consent to planning decisions. He’s firing off written questions to ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (the planning ministry). So far they’ve all been about planning and the green belt. We shared the first three in an earlier post. His most recent questions are:

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, whether he will take steps to protect the Green Belt in the National Planning Policy Framework.

Question from Oliver Dowden, 10 October 2022

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what the Government’s policy is on the calculation of new housing targets in local authorities which are predominately made up of Green Belt land.

Question from Oliver Dowden, 10 October 2022

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what steps the Government is taking to address local housing projections which are based on out-of-date numbers.

Question from Oliver Dowden, 10 October 2022

The minister assigned these questions, Parliamentary Under Secretary Lee Rowley, responds with a holding position:

Existing Government policy is to help make home ownership affordable for more people and to help more people rent their own home. To do that, we will need to deliver more homes. The standard method for assessing local housing need is used by councils to inform the preparation of their local plans and, as part of the local plan process, Councils are responsible for determining the best approach to development in their areas, including taking into consideration important matters such as Green Belt.

The previous Government undertook a review of the standard method formula in 2020 and, after carefully considering consultation responses, they retained the existing formula providing stability and certainty for planning and for local communities. As with all policies, we are monitoring the standard method, particularly as the impact of changes to the way we live and work and levelling up become clear.

Written answer from Lee Rowley, 10 October 2022

National planning frameworks, local plans, rules about affordable housing, a tapestry of historic green belt protections – this is a complicated business and dry as dust (we practically nodded off typing this) but there can’t be a better-informed group than these home counties MPs. They’re planning ninjas, with hundreds of years of opposing major projects and reform to the rules between them. We can only sympathise with Mr Rowley, whose inbox, we feel certain, is going to be pinging constantly as these questions pour in. A quick search of They Work For You suggests that many Tory MPs have kicked off the new session with detailed questions about planning. They’re going to be a tough crowd and the action returns to the floor of the house soon. Meanwhile the markets remain unimpressed, mortgage rates are now rising faster than during the financial crisis and the Winter looms.

* If you’ve been listening to the increasingly desperate defences of the Truss-Kwarteng mini-catastrophe from various leadership proxies you’ll have heard the phrase ‘rolling the pitch’ or ‘pitch-rolling’, as in “…the suspension of politics in the mourning period left no time to ‘roll the pitch’ and warn investors of his plan.” We think this awkward (but obviously very Tory) phrase was first applied to politics by David Cameron. Here’s an example from 2014.

Oliver Dowden is the Anti-Growth Coalition

He swerved his party’s conference and he’s getting ready for a battle with Truss over planning and the green belt

We’re not insiders here at Radlett Wire, just observers. We can’t tell you what’s going on in our MP’s head, we can just tell you what he’s up to, what he’s saying in public, how he votes.

So we have no idea what Oliver Dowden was thinking during the last ten days of chaos in the financial markets, surging bond yields and mounting anxiety about the highest mortgage interest rates in 14 years. We do know that he was completely silent, on all platforms for over a week.

We also know that Dowden was on and that Rishi Sunak’s position on Truss-Kwarteng’s voodoo economics is well known. The former Chancellor even essentially predicted the present chaos. We also know that Dowden is not in Birmingham for his party’s conference (only loyalists attended, and even those who did sloped off early). Gordon Rayner in The Telegraph speculates that Dowden’s disilllusionment might even cause him to stand down at the next election (and the party might decide to replace him with a more compliant candidate anyway, of course, as they did when Dowden himself was helicoptered in to replace the hapless James Clappison).

Britain is still in shock. We all knew that Liz Truss and her Chancellor were prepared to ‘challenge economic orthodoxy’ but no one expected the arbitrary, unhinged intensity of that Friday morning in Parliament and the spiralling chaos of the following hours and days, the Bank of England’s emergency action, the withdrawal of thousands of mortgage products, the despair of young borrowers. The damage to Tory Party prospects might well be terminal.

Ouch. This poll of polls does not look good (New Statesman, October 2022)

Opinion polls are showing vast, 1997-style leads for Labour, the kind of leads only overcome by an incumbent once in electoral history – by Margaret Thatcher, as it happens – although she needed to win a war in the South Atlantic to achieve that. Kwasi Kwarteng, in a YouGov poll, has pulled off the extraordinary feat of going straight from being ‘mostly unknown’ to ‘mostly disliked’ with no honeymoon period at all, even among Conservative voters. Danny Finkelstein, Tory peer and realist, says in The Times that Tories must brace for a rout worse than 1997. Another insider, Tim Montgomerie, founder of the influential Conservative Home web site, told BBC radio that Truss will have to go or the party will face a choice of being ‘a joke or dead‘ by Christmas.

Kwarteng’s moment in the sun, one for which he seemed oddly unprepared (or was that just us?), the ‘mini-budget‘ that made Britain a laughing stock, lays out an economic programme that teeters, like an upside-down jelly pyramid of stupid, on a single chart – long discredited – which asserts that cutting tax rates can increase tax revenues by promoting investment (it’s called the Laffer Curve, this chart, and even Laffer says it doesn’t mean what they think it does). Kwarteng’s announcement will be remembered for one of the worst outcomes for a Chancellor since they executed Thomas Browne for treason in 1460.

So what has Oliver Dowden been doing with the time he might have spent walking the corridors and hotel bars in Birmingham? He’s been preparing (cue training montage, like the one in Kung Fu Panda or in Rocky IV). Search Parliament’s feeds and you’ll find he’s been working on his game for the planning debate for when Parliament returns, firing off a sequence of barbed questions about planning and the protection of the green belt, the Tory Kryptonite.

On 28 September he submitted this written question:

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what the Government’s policy is on the ability for the Planning Inspectorate to override planning decisions made by local councils.

and this one

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what steps the Government will take to ensure local authorities can put in place Local Plans which ensure the protection of local green spaces.

another another

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, whether the Government will take steps to prevent overdevelopment of Green Belt land in its future planning reforms.

(Click the links above for the minister’s predictably anodyne answers)

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

Oliver Dowden’s doing something that Tory MPs in the green and suburban bits of Britain will all be doing right now – he’s getting ready for the big fight over planning, a fight that will set heartland Tories like him against newer ‘red wall’ MPs and against the market headbangers in the cabinet. A key aspect of the Truss government’s ‘growth plan‘ (still pretty thin, if truth be told) is a loosening of planning law and an opening up of the green belt for development. The darkly hollow phrase ‘with community consent’, which either renders the government’s plans for an explosion in new development meaningless or suggests a very special definition of ‘consent’, really doesn’t make the plan seem any more deliverable. This is going to be one of the major battles inside the Conservative party in the new Parliamentary session. Our MP, formerly Minister for Privet Hedges, remember, is going to be on the front line.