Hertsmere General Election preview, part four

The Conservative Party

Two men carry a lectern out into Downing Street for a speech by the Prime Minister
Lot of lectern action lately

This is it. The big one. The last of our four guides to the parties standing in Hertsmere at the next general election, whenever that is. We’ve done the fringe parties, the Liberals and Labour so now it’s time to tackle the incumbents, the 800-pound gorillas of Hertsmere politics, the Conservative Party, winners in Hertsmere since the constituency was created, for the 1983 general election – the ‘Falklands election’. The Tories have never even come close to losing here, not even in 1997, when Labour won the largest number of Parliamentary seats in history and squeezed the margin in Hertsmere to six percent.

Four Conservative politicians behind a desk at a press conference, microphones in front of them. Left to right: Margaret Thatcher, Cecil Parkinson, Francis Pym and Michael Heseltine
Cecil Parkinson (next to Thatcher), once MP for Herstmere and – in a competive field – probably the biggest heel in Conservative Party history

The history of the Tories in Hertsmere is essentially the history of the contituency so you’ll want to read our electoral history of Hertsmere, which covers the whole period since 1983 and its three MPs – including the ignominious departure of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite Cecil Parkinson in 1983 and of his successor James Clappison, dumped by the party for fast-track SPAD Oliver Dowden in 2015.

You might think that Hertsmere is one of those home counties contituencies that’s been approximately Tory since the battle of Hastings, or the end of the ice age. And you wouldn’t be wrong. A single county-wide constituency was first created over seven hundred years ago, in 1294, and it persisted until 1885. The Hertfordshire constituency returned – for most of that period – three MPs (the principal towns in the county also returned their own MPs). Before the franchise was expanded in the late 19th Century the electorate was tiny – In 1868, about 9,000 men in Hertfordshire (landowners and later the ‘ten-pound men‘) could vote. The first time they got a chance to vote for a candidate identified as a Tory was in 1727. He was a Jacobite noble called Charles Caesar, who was also Treasurer of the Navy. Between then and the seat’s final abolition in 1885 Tories dominated, with the occasional blip of Whig control. Between then and 1983 Radlett has bounced around between the constituencies of Watford, South West Hertfordshire and South Hertfordshire.

The odds

In a sea of disastrous polling data from the Sunak period, we’ve seen only one projection that suggests the Tories could lose in Hertsmere – and it’s a doozy. It’s the February 2023 MRP poll from the highly-reliable polling company Electoral Calculus. It gives Labour 509 seats and the Conservative Party 45. In this scenario the Tories aren’t even the official opposition. LOL.

February 2023 MRP poll from Electoral Calculus, showing the following data in a table:
Party	Number of Seats
at GE 2019	Predicted
Number of Seats	Predicted
Change
CON	365	45	?320
LAB	203	509	306
SNP	48	50	2
LIB	11	23	12
Plaid	4	4	0
Green	1	1	0
Reform	0	0	0
Total	632	632	0
Ouch

We know that even the slightly less extreme polling that’s been done since then has been causing panic bordering on hysteria in corridors and bars and meeting rooms in the SW1 area. Such an enormous swing is obviously unlikely and the most recent MRP polling gives Dowden a 1997-sized lead here in Hertsmere. That would bring Labour’s candidate Josh Tapper to within 3,000 votes of Oliver Dowden. We’ve noted before that Tapper must be praying the Gogglebox factor can get him a bit closer.

Chart showing vote share for the Hertsmere Parliamentary constituency for the main parties in the period from 1983 to 2019
Vote shares in Hertsmere since 1983, showing swings to Labour in 1997 and 2017

Crown, church and land

They don’t call the Conservative Party the most successful political party in the world for nothing. This 300 year-old institution, which began life in the ferment after the English Civil War, is so wired into the constitution of middle England – especially rural and landowning England – that it seems almost to be part of the landscape.

The party’s various re-inventions, especially in the period since the industrial revolution, have seen it identified with business (which had previously been the domain of the Whigs), with the urban middle class and, much more recently, with working class voters, for whom the Tories came to stand for ambition, home ownership and the prospect of a better life for their children.

The fact that this last electoral coalition – the one assembled by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s that has seen the party running the country for 32 of the last 45 years – seems finally to be collapsing, in the wake of 15 years of flat wages, growing inequality and diminishing expectations – would, for any ordinary party, presumably mean the end. For the Tories it almost certainly means another re-invention – the Conservative Party is evidently indestructible and will still be with us on the other side of whatever apocalypse awaits us. Like cockroaches and the plague.

Our present Prime Minister – according to a polling firm one of the least popular party leaders in history – has made several increasingly desperate attempts at his own re-invention in the last year or two and, in his most recent effort, is trying to position his party as the ‘national security party’ or the party of geopolitical dread. It’s too early to say whether this relaunch will stick, of course, although the bookies aren’t convinced. At Radlett Wire we have a simple rule of thumb: when the Prime Minister puts a lectern outside Number 10 and makes a speech about nuclear annihilation it’s probably not his country’s security he’s worried about but his own.

The candidate

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

We remain, as we have essentially since his election in 2015, deeply impressed by Oliver Dowden. He’s an intriguing figure. Not charismatic, not possessed of any apparent vision or of a distinctive political identity, nor even of deep roots in the Tory party. He is, in his party’s terms, an outsider, but his tenacity and his political instincts have kept him in or near the action since his first election – through one of the most turbulent periods in his party’s (and the Parliament’s) history. He’s a pragmatist – entering politics via David Cameron’s upbeat, socially-liberal, modernising regime, when CCHQ was like the marketing department of a Plc – and he had no difficulty subsquently lodging himself in the government of each successor Prime Minister. Only Liz Truss could find no use for him.

As we said in an earlier post here, when the s**t hits the fan he’s always ready:

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…

From How does Hertsmere vote? Radlett Wire, updated 19 January 2024
An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden of the Winter of Discontent Taskforce

We’ve sometimes called Dowden a bagman here. We don’t mean this disdainfully. The bagman is vital to a successful political party. Some politicians are far too grand for this kind of thing but Dowden is always quite happy, as the moment requires, to get his hands dirty, to dispose of a body, to endorse even the silliest talking points – privet hedges, woke roadsigns, hoarding stolen artefactsscolding Netflix and calling for Gary Lineker‘s dismissal on the regular. He’ll step up in defense of the indefensible on the Sunday morning programmes without complaint and he’ll take on the emptiest, gestural nonsense with gusto. For a while during the wave of industrial unrest of 2022 and 2023 he was put in charge of Rishi Sunak’s ‘Winter of Discontent taskforce’. We amused ourselves here trying to find any further trace of activity from the taskforce. None materialised. It was never more than an announcement – the kind of entirely hollow politics you need a strong stomach to pursue with enthusiasm. Dowden has a strong stomach.

Classic teflon

Oliver Dowden is as close to clean hands as you’ll get in the contemporary Conservative party, so-far unblemished by scandal. And even when he really ought to have got into trouble he’s somehow squeaked through, untouched. It was Dowden who appointed Boris Johnson’s friend and loan-arranger to be Chair of the BBC. Dowden who was in charge of propriety and ethics when the party was accused of covering up a rape. He’s never been close to the big money but he was one of ten Tory MPs who took paid jobs with party donors during 2022 and for some reason accepted a payment from the hedge fund that bankrolled Liz Truss’s experiment with credibility too.

Local hero

Dowden comes from up the road and went to a school a lot of Hertsmere kids attend. He knows the area and has been a diligent constituency representative. In our experience, he (almost always) answers letters from constituents (your mileage may vary). He’s never, as far as we know, phoned an elderly constituent in the middle of the night asking for money to give to ‘bad people’ and we’re pretty sure he doesn’t own a property portfolio. He’s always ready to make a speech about a car park next to a bin. For all this, as his constituents, we should be grateful.

There will be constituents who question his absolute committment to local concerns, though. The rail freight terminal on the old Radlett aerodrome land is one of those giant projects that will always present a problem for a government minister. He very much wants to be identified with the electors who are going to have an enormous warehouse blocking out their view or a busy new access road keeping them awake.

An aerial visualisation of the Radlett rail freight terminal planned for the old aerodrome land

It’s a delicate business, though. Dowden has felt able to participate in the dispute but has reserved his full-throated criticism for the actions of the local authority, Hertfordshire County Council in this case, who say they were obliged to sell the land for the development. It’s always much easier for an MP to criticise the council than to criticise his own government or a major business that may well be a party donor.

We feel for Dowden on this. He doesn’t want to be seen too vocally opposing a development that will bring work to the area at a time when everyone’s fulminating about the sclerotic planning system. The sheer scale of the development and its likely impact on the households affected makes it hard to ignore for a local MP, though.

He’s ready

Screenshot of a tweet from Oliver Dowden MP. Two photos of Dowden with local Conservative Party members. Text reads: Delighted to have been readopted as the Conservative candidate for Hertsmere this evening!

Dowden has been reselected by his local party (they do this sort of thing informally in the Conservative Party) but, as far as we know, he hasn’t actually lodged his nomination papers with the local authority so there’s still a slim chance he’ll run for the hills. We doubt it, though.

As a government minister he’ll evidently be able to draw on significant resources from his party during his campaign but Hertsmere is such a safe seat that it’s unlikely we’ll see many of the top brass here during the campaign. If he’s lucky he’ll be able to call on his friends at South Hertfordshire Business Club again, though. This is a club with no web site, no staff, no premises, no accounts and, apparently, no members (looks like it might share an address with the St Albans Conservative Association, though). According to the Electoral Commission the club gave £82,741.09 to Dowden’s office between 2017 and 2022, making use of a loophole that allows ‘unincorporated associations’ to give up to £25,000 per year to a political party or campaign without saying where the money comes from. Dowden’s not the only MP using this method of accessing anonymous money. There are a number of these secretive organisations, with names like The Portcullis Club and the Magna Carta Club (that one’s given £150,000 to Michael Gove since 2009). Interestingly, they seem to exist only to give money to Conservative politicians and campaigns. Details of the Dowden donations in this spreadsheet.


  • Dowden suffers from a very contemporary political problem. He’s from a nominally working-class background but he speaks and acts quite posh. The same problem afflicts Keir Starmer. But the iron rule is that neither will ever, no matter how much they protest, be accepted as working class. They both really ought to give up trying.
  • Oliver Dowden has had a few goes at the despatch box depping for the boss lately. We can’t say we’ve ever managed to get through a whole session. It’s too much. Watching him labour awkwardly through his scripted jokes is far too painful, like the nasty bit in a nature documentary about seals and killer whales.
  • It turns out that the dreadful Cecil Parkinson affair has not yet, over forty years on, been forgotten. A new documentary is in the works.
  • Here’s our big spreadsheet with all the Hertsmere election results going back to 1983 – the only place you’ll find all this information in one place (and we recently added Hertfordshire PCC results going back to 2012 for extra excitement).
  • We group together all our Oliver Dowden posts with the #DowdenLog tag and you can subscribe to these posts in an RSS reader if that’s your thing.
  • You can keep up with what Oliver Dowden does in Parliament at TheyWorkForYou and you can set up an email alert there too, should you be sad enough.
  • We’re on Twitter/X and Facebook and you can follow this blog in the fediverse. Search for @blog@radlettwire.co.uk in your fediverse client (e.g. Mastodon)

How to keep tabs on your MP

Right at the base of our democracy is the idea of representation. We send our MPs to Westminster to vote on our behalf. How they vote is our business.

Of course, once they get to Westminster they usually become ridiculous figures – and they quite soon join one of the two available categories. They’re either pompous, wounded egomaniacs or grasping, bitter kleptomaniacs. This seems harsh but there are really hardly any exceptions. The number of MPs who make it through even their first term without some kind of psychic damage is tiny. Our electoral system favours dweebs and maniacs. The system shrugs off the normies – they’re gone after their first term – back to accountancy or running a charity with a disease in its name. These are the sane ones.

Anyway, here at Radlett Wire we’ve been keeping an eye on our MP – The Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE, MP for Hertsmere – since he was elected in May 2015, displacing his predecessor James Clappison in one of those cold-blooded political assassinations the Tory Party is uniquely good at. It’s not clear yet to which category Dowden belongs. It sometimes takes decades for this to become obvious. We’ll keep you informed. Here’s how we keep up with him.

Oliver Dowden acceptance speech 2017. Photo from Hertsmere democracy team.
Oliver Dowden addresses the crowds after winning in 2017 by a majority of 16,951

Start here. Veteran social enterprise They Work For You maintains the best database of your MP’s voting record as well as a useful summary of their position on the most important issues. Over the years, the site has quietly become an integral part of the British electoral machine. MPs who initially resented it because it makes emailing your MP too easy have now adjusted to the flow of communications and take it for granted. You can sign up to get an email alert every time your MP does something interesting in Parliament.

Scene inside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Chaotic cables and piping under a low ceiling. A sign reads: No access unauthorised Respiratory equipment and overalls must be worn
Asbestos, rotting cables, leaking pipes.

Go to the source. Parliament may be falling down but its digital systems are a genuine wonder – and a model for Parliaments and assemblies around the world. It’s easy to call up your MP’s speeches in the house, questions for the Prime Minister, contributions to select committees, the works. You can also watch Parliamentary debates live while in session, debates in Westminster Hall and there’s an archive of video from committee sessions going back to 2007.

Set up a Google alert. The absolute backbone of lazy Internet research. There must be a billion live alerts running worldwide. Search for what you’re interested in, turn it into an email alert, set the frequency and level of detail. Simple. Our daily alert for ‘Oliver Dowden‘ is vital to this blog and regularly produces unexpected gems. For instance, Dowden, in his role as a senior Cabinet Office Minister, is responsible for enforcing the rules on foreign investments in UK businesses. The system was set up to impede the Chinese takeover of swathes of British industry – mainly because this is a big policy priority for our American allies. It’s a total mess, of course, and entirely ineffective, so Dowden is now planning an embarrassing u-turn but we’d have known nothing about any of it without our trusty Google alert.

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden

Pay attention to what they say. Dowden’s web site is pretty good. You can sign up for his ‘end of term report’ and read his columns for various local freesheets. None of this is very interesting, of course – in fact it’s almost the definition of paralysingly boring – but it’ll give you a sense of your MP’s priorities.

Socia media remains vital. Politicians are still active on X (formerly known as Twitter) and on Facebook. Some of the more adventurous have built audiences on Instagram and TikTok (do you remember Matt Hancock’s smartphone app, inventively called ‘Matt Hancock’, dating from back when he was just a figure of fun, before he became a Shakespearean farce?). You’ll often find politicians publishing statements, resignation letters and endorsements on social media without publishing them anywhere else. The platforms have become a proxy for a press office and the nearest we’ve got to an archive. During the Pincher affair we recorded over 70 resignation letters published on Twitter alone.

Subscribe. Most web sites still offer their content in a vintage format that many consider to be the last non-evil thing on the Internet. It’s called RSS and it allows to you add a feed to a simple reader app on your mobile or your computer and automatically get updates whenever new content is added. We’ve got one here at Radlett Wire and we’ve even got a niche feed for our MP. Add one or both to your RSS reader for ultimate convenience. RSS is still used extensively by journalists and researchers. It’s kind of a trade secret. Don’t tell anyone.


  • Our favourite RSS reader, now that Google Reader has gone, is a Mac app called Reeder. There are plenty of others – for all platforms.

Shall we fire this thing up again?

There’s an election coming. We can feel the electricity in the air.

A three-quarter-length portrait, taken in the light from a window in a long room at Windsor Castle in 2023 by photographer Hugo Burn and shows His Majesty King Charles III wearing the Royal Navy uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet and official medals and decorations. He leans on a small table, his sailor's cap and white gloves on the table.
This is not Oliver Dowden, it’s the King in a sailor’s uniform. That’ll be £8 Million.

We haven’t posted here for seven months. We took a break and meanwhile, you may have noticed, the world got even more dark and weird. But Rishi Sunak says his ‘working assumption’ is that we’ll have a general election in the second half of this year so the politics is about to get a bit more interesting (and then there’s the polling). Maybe it’s time to start blogging again.

So what’s our MP actually been up to?

In the intervening period, Oliver Dowden, who was appointed Deputy Prime Minister by Rishi Sunak after Dominic Raab resigned in April of last year (there was another bullying scandal. We know, it’s really hard to keep up). Dowden remains Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office and has continued to excel as a bagman, flitting from studio to studio, mopping up after everyone from Peter Bone to Boris Johnson to Suella Braverman (remember her?) to Michel Mone to the boss himself and picking up salient issues as they hit the inbox – strikes, Artificial Intelligence (for designing bioweapons and for getting rid of surplus civil servants) and Chinese takeovers of UK businesses, for instance. He’s got bit parts in the Covid Inquiry and in the Post Office scandal, of course (we could include definitely not covering up for a rapist in the Conservative Party, asking Netflix to tell everyone The Crown is made-up, casually snubbing the Greek Prime Minister and more-or-less constantly complaining about Gary Lineker but honestly this list is getting a bit long).

We don’t want to be too dismissive. Dowden did collide with a few big issues along the way – he addressed the UN about Ukraine, spoke for the government on the Gaza protests and called a Cobra meeting about the terror threat. The fact that Oliver Dowden actually ran the country for a few days during the Summer holidays may or may not fill you with dread.

Untouched by scandal

None of this is what you’d call inspiring is it? But this constant focus on the political nitty-gritty and selflessly stepping up to defend the indefensible when asked to has obviously served Dowden well. No detectable scandal (that 25 grand payment barely gets him into the top 50 MPs), no public shaming, he’s not been asked to leave via the back door of Number 10 once yet. Classic teflon.

The boss is back

A departure for the ages

It must be, er, bewildering (Upsetting? Galling?) for Oliver Dowden to see his first political boss David Cameron, who departed the scene like a thief in the night (humming) in 2016, actually re-entering government via the back door, though. In a just world Dowden would have eclipsed his sensei by now but, tragically, he finds himself down the table from the old Etonian again. It must be maddening, especially as Cameron didn’t even have to go to the trouble of getting elected this time – he just strolled into the House of Lords and picked up his ermine (and his £104,360 per year salary).

Perfectly normal

Head-and-shoulders portrait photograph of Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev in an ornate frame. He's wearing a black suit, white shirt and dark blue tie. He sits against a flag and emblem of Azerbaijan

So, let’s get to that portrait of the King. Oliver Dowden has chosen a photograph of Charles III wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, with the many medals and insignia he has earned in that role, taken in one of his castles. It’s A3-sized and comes in an oak frame1. If you represent a ‘public authority’ you can get one for nothing (you just have to send an email). What you’re required to do with it is not specified – although we assume you’re supposed to hang it on the wall in the lobby, like they do in Azerbaijan. The cost to tax-payers is expected to be £8 Million. And we’re all going to carry on acting like this is a perfectly normal thing for the government of a democracy to do in 2024.

YouGov MRP poll - chart with text that reads: Labour would win 120-seat majority if election were held tomorrow. Median seat count estimates in latest YouGov MRP, based on modelled responses from 14,110 British adults. Chart shows 385 seats for Labour and 202 seats for Conservative.
For a Tory MP this is what gets you updating your LinkedIn in January 2024

In our next post we’ll look at the recent polling, including last week’s allegedly hyper-accurate MRP poll, commissioned by Lord David Frost and paid for by a shadowy group calling itself The Conservative Britain Alliance (the Electoral Commission wants to know who they are), that’s put the fear of God into Tory MPs and triggered this week’s frenzied (and highly entertaining) festival of recrimination and panic in the corridors and meeting rooms of the House of Commons and CCHQ.


  1. Some people have raised concerns about the little camera at the top of the picture frame. We’re pretty sure you can just put a bit of tape or a Post-It Note over it, although we’re not sure if that’s actually allowed. ↩︎
  • As a Cabinet Office minister, Oliver Dowden remains responsible for the government’s 22-person propriety and ethics team – he’s this guy‘s boss. It’s still not clear what they actually do.
  • We’re urged to recognise Lord Cameron’s selfless devotion to duty. He’s promised not to collect his daily £342 House of Lords attendance allowance while collecting his £104,360 per year ministerial salary, for instance, and he’s had to give up the enormous sums he’s been earning as a consultant and adviser in the private sector. In every year since he resigned he’s claimed the allowance for former Prime Ministers – the Public Duty Costs Allowance (PDCA) – which runs to a maximum of £115,000 per year and it’s not known if he’ll continue to claim it now that he’s a minister. Meanwhile, the Serious Fraud Office hasn’t finished investigating the affairs of his former employer Greensill Capital, where Cameron’s salary was £720,000 per year (he was also given shares in the company and sold them just before it went bust for £3.3M)
  • At Radlett Wire we’re convinced that there’s some value in keeping an eye on the conduct of a local MP – especially in a constituency like ours that’s been dominated by one party since its creation forty years ago. It’s one of the worthwhile things that local blogs all over the country still do. We’ve grouped all the Dowden posts together with the tag #DowdenLog. You can use an RSS reader to subscribe to the blog or just to our gripping Oliver Dowden updates. If you follow Radlett Wire on Twitter/X, on Facebook and now in the Fediverse (search for @blog on Mastodon or your favourite ActivtyPub service) we’ll also share every Dowden post there.

Dowden steps up

For the Deputy Prime Minister, our MP, it’s time to become part of the story.

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

You’re a successful politician, you’ve played the game, moved with the populist times, you’ve gone to America and come back an anti-woke crusader. You’ve picked your allies carefully. More to the point, you’ve measured out your support for the big beasts cleverly and you’ve not really put a foot wrong. In a cabinet stuffed with chancers and bullies and weirdos you’re practically a saint. But you’re stuck in the second tier and the clock is ticking. What to do?

Oliver Dowden’s come a long way from speech-writer and trouble-shooter in David Cameron’s office while his party was in opposition. He’s developed a reputation for political savvy and good timing. He’s moved around the fringes of power, taking up various important bagman roles and he’s never disgraced himself. But there’s less than a year to go before the most likely date for the next general election and Dowden must get a move on if he’s to make an impact before he’s back on the opposition benches and kissing babies at the fair.

He’s clocking up valuable hours at the despatch box and cultivating an implausible new ‘working class’ image (although he must realise that if it’s not possible for the leader of the Labour Party, it definitely won’t work for him).

So it’s easy enough to understand why he’s decided now’s the time to pick sides in the war of succession between Johnson and Sunak. Johnson’s allies are briefing that Dowden is the source of the leaked diary entries that kicked off the latest chapter of Johnson’s unconscionable persecution. They’re calling Dowden a ‘compliant tool of the blob‘. It’s game on.

And if you’re going to step into history, to become more than a footnote in the big monographs that will be written about the period you need to act. Dowden’s fervent hope is that taking his opposition to the Johnson faction up a gear and cementing himself more firmly to Project Sunak, he’ll secure a bigger job and a more important role, closer to the elemental core of Britain’s crown-constitutional weirdness, when the wheel turns and the Tories are re-instated, as they surely will be, to their natural leadership position in the fullness of time.

Hertsmere General Election preview, part one

The fringe parties

Nigel Farage raises a glass of red wine and his eyebrows in the green room at an episode of BBC Radio 4's Any Questions in Hurstpierpoint on 5 May 2017. He's wearing a blue suit and tie
“Fringe? Moi?”

Calm down. The general election could be as far away as 28 January 2025. It could be a lot sooner, though. Now that the Fixed Term Parliament Act is no more and Prime Ministers may call elections whenever they want, subject to the maximum term, the element of surprise is back. May 2024 looks good because it would coincide with some local elections. Earlier than that wouldn’t give the Conservatives time to claw back enough of Labour’s polling lead – which has been diminishing across the last few months but still stands at 16% or 200 seats. September 2024 is probably the latest it’ll practically happen. The unknown is how Rishi Sunak is feeling on any given day. Our money is on 2 May 2024.

Candidates have to submit nomination papers if they want to stand but they won’t be asked to do so until after Parliament is dissolved, so you’ve got plenty of time to raise the deposit if you feel like standing. Local parties are already selecting and adopting candidates. Oliver Dowden got the good news from his local party last month (Boris Johnson a month before that).

In Hertsmere, in addition to the incumbent, we now know about one other candidate for the 2024 general election. Darren Selkus, army veteran and CEO of an East London wood veneer company, has announced (on Twitter obvs) that he’s going to stand for election, for the Reform Party, successor to the Brexit Party and offspring of UKIP (Selkus stood for the party in the Hertsmere Borough Council election last week and polled 53 votes). If Mr Selkus does manage to get his papers in to stand in Hertsmere, he’ll be far from the first candidate from the populist right to do so, of course.

This post will be the first of our General Election previews and we’ll use it to discuss the fringe and populist parties that have stood in Hertsmere since it came into being in 1983. In later posts we’ll tell the stories of the bigger parties in the constituency.

The Referendum Party

A smiling Sir James Goldsmith campaigning for his Referendum Party at the 1997 UK general election. Behind him a party banner and a union flag

Buccaneer businessman, James Goldsmith – a man who, while still at Eton, won £250,000 in today’s money on the horses and promptly left school, a man who was a billionaire in the seventies, way before it was cool – started the Referendum Party in 1994, several years after Alan Sked founded the party that would become UKIP, but Goldsmith’s party will be remembered as the originator of the idea of a popular vote on EU membership. While UKIP was still a nerdy ginger group, Sir James was busy sending VHS tapes to five million British households (you’ve probably got one in your loft).

The Referendum Party was the absolute OG eurosceptic party, setting the tone for the two decades of populist tumult that would follow. Goldsmith’s party polled 1,703 votes in Hertsmere in 1997 and in the general election beat UKIP in almost every seat where both stood. The party’s programme looked pretty kooky back then but who’s laughing now? Goldsmith died later in the same year, the party disbanded and, well, the rest is history…

BNP

Photograph of British National party leader making a speech in front of a BNP union flag logo

Fast forward to the high-water mark for anti-immigration sentiment at the end of Labour’s 13 years in office. Immigration had increased steadily under Labour and a surge in asylum applications caused by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had put Blair and later Brown on the back foot (there was discussion of withdrawing from the ECHR). Local man Daniel Seabrook polled 1,397 votes for the British National Party in Hertsmere in May 2010, a few months after Nick Griffin, the party’s leader, made his controversial appearance on the BBC’s Question Time. In this period the party held 50 council seats and in 2009 won over a million votes in the EU Parliamentary elections and sent two MEPs, including Griffin, to Strasbourg, where the party joined with other European racist and nationalist parties in the formation of a new group, the Alliance of European National Movements. The BNP had been founded in 1982 by former members of the National Front and has subsequently, at least in electoral terms, disappeared entirely – a measure, let’s face it, of how thoroughly the party’s bitter, hateful worldview has been absorbed by more mainstream parties.

UKIP

The United Kingdom Independence Party, thirty years old this year, is a paradox. A party that, like other parties on this list, has now more-or-less disappeared but can make a reasonable claim to being the most important UK political party of the last twenty years and is responsible, in a pretty direct way, for one of the most consequential changes in modern British history. A party that’s never had more than two Westminster MPs but turned British politics upside-down and routinely polled millions of votes in general elections. A party that, at its peak, had Britain’s fifth largest membership but has now been reduced to a bitter, anti-woke husk that can barely fill a village hall (but supports Hyperloop).

UKIP first stood in Hertsmere in 2010 and, in 2015, candidate Frank Ward, a local councillor who, nearly thirty years earlier, had won almost 20% of the vote for Labour, achieved a pretty decent 6,383 votes, a high-water mark and more than twice the Liberal Democrat vote in that election. Ward’s breakthrough was, of course, part of a national surge that saw the party win 3.8 Million votes, making UKIP comfortably the third largest party in the UK. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, UKIP won more votes than all other UK parties and 24 seats in the Parliament. You know what happened next.

It’s been downhill since then, of course. In 2017 the UKIP vote in Hertsmere was cut to 1,564 and in 2019 the party didn’t stand at all. UKIP limps on, with a policy platform that looks more like the BNP’s than the old UKIP’s, and won a total of zero seats in the local elections (losing 25) last week. The party now has no elected positions anywhere in the UK and is led by one-time Tory Minister Neil “Cash for Questions” Hamilton.

The Brexit Party

You’ll remember the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage’s one-policy, post-referendum party, which had a short and checkered history and absolutely smashed it in the last ever UK election for the European Parliament. The party made an awkward, unreciprocated deal with the Conservatives and, as a result, stood down in hundreds of Conservative constituencies for the 2019 GE, including ours. Farage moved on and the Brexit Party became the Reform Party.

The Reform Party

Richard Tice

At last week’s local elections the party that grew out of the Brexit Party “struggled to make headway”, as they say in the media. They wound up with a total of six council seats in England and Wales and, where they stood, they averaged 6% of the vote. In Hertsmere candidates in Potters Bar and Shenley managed a total of 130 votes. Nationally, the party’s founder Nigel Farage has lost interest and President Richard Tice has somewhat sunk from view, although he can be seen on Talk TV fairly regularly.

In Britain, the rigid FPTP electoral system obviously doesn’t favour minority parties and, as a consequence, they tend not to bother developing detailed policy programmes. There’s not much incentive to workshop a forty-page manifesto when you’ll never ever get a chance to implement it.

Slide from a Reform Party presentation about economics:
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY – REFORM UK SOLUTION
• BIG, BOLD, EFFECTIVE - £74 bn stimulus:
• Cut tax – zero income tax below £20k / year = save almost £1,500 /year per person
• Cut cost of living by reducing other taxes:
• Scrap VAT on energy bills = save £100 / year per household
• Scrap environmental levies = save £160 / year per household
• Reduce fuel duty by 20p / litre = save £240 / year per driver
• Cut wasteful Govt spending – save £5 in £100 = £55 billion per year
• Reduce VAT from 20% to 18% - save £300 / year per household
• Unlock Shale Gas Treasure: £1 trillion + of levelling up, by drilling down - will cut bills

So it’s interesting that Reform’s policy platform is quite well-developed. It looks a lot like those of some other European populist parties. The economics is interventionist and broadly expansionary, there’s a plan to invest in the NHS and it’s all costed and funded in some detail. As you’d expect there’s a lot of emphasis on tax cuts and energy independence. Immigration comes up but is not the primary concern. Although they’re probably due an update, the party’s four missions don’t look too different from the big parties’ (and no mention of ‘woke’).

Four-part platform of the UK Reform Party:
Lower Taxes
Secure Borders
CheaperEnergy
Zero Waiting Lists

So, if the Reform Party stands in Hertsmere, what are their prospects? Well, they don’t look too good. The current government’s policy platform sits squarely on the populists’ lawn – ticking all the boxes, especially the big one labelled ‘small boats’.

The always fascinating Electoral Calculus actually projects a 7.1% share for the Reform Party in Hertsmere, better than for the The Green Party, but still gives the Tories a 67% chance of winning.

Reclaim?

There’s another right-wing party we should look at, not least because this party has just done what the others on this list have rarely achieved and acquired for itself an actual MP.

A black and white photograph of Laurence Fox wering combat camouflage, from the Reclaim Party web site. The text 'your freedom, reclaim it' is overlaid.

You might say that Laurence Fox’s Reclaim is not quite a party. It may have leapfrogged the electoral process into Parliament but it doesn’t yet have a policy platform. When the party’s leader does get an opportunity to communicate his priorities, it’s essentially 100% anti-vax and anti-woke. If Reform resembles a scaled-down Fidesz or a Brothers of Italy, serious parties of the populist right, with programmes and long-term ambitions, Reclaim resembles a protest group, formed in the tendentious shouting match of social media – and, if we’re honest, more of a vehicle for its charismatic leader than a movement. The ‘leadership’ page lists only one person and that person’s photograph appears three times on the homepage. The manifesto is inchoate. Here’s the whole thing:

The political platform of the UK Reclaim Party - text under six categories: free speech, sovereignty, a dynamic economy, power of the state, rule of law and equality
The entire policy platform of Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party

It’s worth keeping an eye on Reclaim, though, the party has already attracted substantial funding from the usual billionaires and with a Westminster seat we can expect the money to continue to flow. Don’t rule out a rash of Reclaim Parliamentary candidates in 2024.

The Greens

A large group of Green Party campaigners gathered for a portrait with placards

Is it fair to put the Green Party on this list, in between the loons and the lefties? Perhaps not. They have managed to get one MP elected – unlike almost everyone else in this post (no, Laurence, Andrew Bridgen does not count) – and they have, to an important degree, set the agenda in metropolitan Britain and in Scotland for some years. They’re like the anti-UKIP – a party of huge emotional and cultural relevance to a big chunk of the electorate but with not the slightest chance of winning a general election.

Of course, with net zero now official policy for all the major parties, the Greens might fear that they’re beginning to look a bit redundant. And now that, out of the blue, trans rights has become a wedge ‘culture wars’ issue for general and national elections, the party’s principled stance on the issue might turn into a serious electoral risk that it’s hard to mitigate, as it has for the SNP.

The Greens first stood in Hertsmere in 2010. Candidate Arjuna Krishna-Das polled 604 votes – not at all bad for a first try (although it was less than half the BNP vote). The candidate disappeared for the next election, though, and in 2015 there was no Green candidate at all in Hertsmere. We looked into it at the time and learnt that Krishna-Das had – confusingly – defected to a ‘counter-jihad’ UKIP spin-off calling itself Liberty GB, an outfit that has now so thoroughly disappeared its own web site has been taken over by spammers.

Since the Green Party returned to the ballot in Hertsmere it’s been all good news. The party added c 50% to its vote in 2017 and nearly doubled that in 2019. Electoral Calculus projects another doubling for the GE, so that must be encouraging. What’s fascinating about the Greens in Britain though, is how urban they are. The party evidently does have rural support but, even in areas like ours, where big chunks of the countryside are threatened by developers, they’re not strongly identified with opposition to building on the green belt and certainly aren’t seen as standing for the big rural or suburban causes.

It’s a confirmation, if needed, that the Green Party is really a party of the young and of the university-educated and not of the people who actually occupy the green bits of the country. Having said that, the party now controls its first council and it’s a pretty rural one.

Communists and socialists

A red hammer and sickle motif

The fringe parties aren’t always on the right, of course. In 1983, the year the constituency came into being and the year of Margaret Thatcher’s second landslide, a candidate standing as an Independent Communist won 1,116 votes in Hertsmere. We’ve long been puzzled by this fact – that there were, apparently, over a thousand communists in this prosperous part of the Home Counties at around the high point of Thatcherism, but we did eventually notice that the candidate’s name, Ronald Parkinson, was pretty close to the name of the winning Conservative candidate, Minister and confidant of the Prime Minister Cecil Parkinson. Since then we’ve been advising fringe candidates in Hertsmere to change their names.

James Dry stood twice for the Socialist Labour Party in Hertsmere, in 2001 and 2005, polling over 500 votes on his second try. The party, founded and led to this day by one-time miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, stood in 114 Parliamentary constituencies in 2001 but a split in the party that year, over the matter of support for relations with comrades in North Korea (we kid you not), diminished its standing. The party hasn’t put up a candidate since 2010 but continues to campaign for the reopening of the coal mines.

Even further out

A group of men wearing Natural Law Party t-shirts participate in yogic flying
Cutting crime

We’ve saved our favourite till last. In the early nineties, the worldwide Transcendental Meditation movement saw fit to start a transnational political party, the Natural Law Party. The idea was to apply the principles of TM, including the magical practice of yogic flying, to social and political problems. The party stood in at least 74 countries and even put up a candidate for President of the United States. In Britain the lavishly-funded party stood in every single Parliamentary seat and did so twice. In Hertsmere the party never did better than 373 votes (and we suspect the movement’s connections with Hare Krishna may have contributed to that total). The party’s presence across the country gave it access to TV election advertising and its broadcasts caused much amusement, not to say consternation. In this one, UK party leader Geoffrey Clements claims, for instance, that the yogic flyers had already reduced the crime rate in Liverpool and improved exam results across the whole country (he doesn’t address the fact that, if it’s possible for TM to improve things so much before they’ve been elected, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to vote for them).

It’s tempting to think that what we need now, at this fractious time, is another political party that can solve deep social problems by the power of thought alone and without going to all the trouble of being elected.

Onwards and sideways!

Oliver Dowden is the consummate bagman. A loyal and effective consigliere. Always at the service of the leader, always ready.

Official portrait of MP and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden at a desk with two union flags behind him
Oliver “Two Flags” Dowden at a desk

We’ve written here before about Dowden’s progress around the fringes of the Cabinet. This time he’s been asked to add the role of Deputy Prime Minister to the already very long job description of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. For a Prime Minister to appoint a deputy is often a way to reward loyalty or to shore up an uncertain leadership by bringing in an ally. Dowden’s appointment ticks both boxes – he’s been a loyal supporter of Sunak since his resignation from Johnson’s cabinet last Summer and is considered a member of the PM’s inner circle (Dowden was on the doorstep in Bushey this weekend with Sunak’s wife, Britain’s most famous non-dom Akshata Murty).

Deputy Prime Ministers come and go. It’s a job title that’s in the gift of the Prime Minister and can be switched on and off at will (the first one was Clement Attlee during the war) It doesn’t attract a salary (Dowden will still be pulling down the £158,257 he makes for his current roles, though, so don’t worry) and usually has no office. Sometimes a deputy PM can have a more formal role. Nick Clegg, you’ll remember, led his half of the coalition from the Deputy’s office. Thérèse Coffey chaired two committees during her tenure as Deputy to Liz Truss last year (although it’s not recorded that they actually met – she wasn’t there for long). John “Two Jags” Prescott, a very visible (not to say pugilistic) Deputy, chaired nine.

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

It’s probably safe to assume that Dowden won’t be taking on any committees or formal tasks while in the new job. He’s got plenty to be getting on with in the Cabinet Office – he’s in charge of freaking us all out, for instance. He’s also got a track record for taking on empty or nominal roles as needed. He’s in charge of the government’s anti-woke activity, for instance and, as far as we can tell, his Industrial Action Taskforce, assembled in November last year, has never actually met – or done anything at all, in fact.

As for Dowden’s personal prospects, he must be wondering whether he’ll ever make the jump from the lower tiers into one of the big jobs. So far he’s managed one full-ministerial role: he was Culture Secretary between 2020 and 2021 but he’ll probably now be remembered only as the man who appointed Richard Sharp Chairman of the BBC (new revelations about that in the Sunday Times this weekend). Oops.

Graph from Electoral Calculus polling company showing the UK general election opinion polling average between December 2019 and March 2023
Ouch

And the clock is ticking, of course. The polling looks bad. No matter what you think of the competence or authenticity of the Starmer Labour Party, a Tory win in 2024 has to be a long shot. Electoral Calculus, a polling company, calculates a rolling poll-of-polls – an average of all the public opinion polls. As of 22 April 2023 it suggests the Tories might slump from 365 to 113 seats (and a 95% probability of a Labour majority). Their best case prediction is for 244 Conservative seats, which would be better than Labour’s 2019 performance (203 seats) but would still put the Tories in second place.

A chart from the ELectoral Calculus polling company showing the number of seats predicted to be won by each party at the next UK general election, from February 2023
Double ouch

And that’s before you even get to the worst case. Electoral Calculus specialises in a clever statistical polling technique called MRP (multi-level regression and post stratification, since you asked) to calculate what are usually thought to be more accurate predictions – pundits and strategists always rush for the MRP projections. They did the last one in February (when the Tories were doing even worse than they are today, to be clear) and it suggests a grand total of 45 Conservative seats. In this scenario, the Tories aren’t even the official opposition and even Oliver Dowden loses his seat. Boom.

So if Dowden is to score one of the Great Offices of State he’ll need another fairly dramatic upset this side of the general election or he’ll need to bide his time. Really bide his time.

  • I made use of this terrific explainer about the Deputy Prime Minister role from the Institute for Government.
  • The Wikipedia entry for Deputy Prime Minister is fascinating – and goes into the various definitions of the role. Attlee, for instance, was de facto Deputy Prime Minister but never formally appointed. Michael Heseltine was the first to carry the formal title.

What we do here is a public service

In the distant future, when archaeologists uncover this blog, buried under about forty feet of Thames silt, they’ll thank us.

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

What we do is keep a fastidious eye on what our MP gets up to. It’s not personal, he’s a pretty good MP. He pays attention when we write him whingey letters and he makes a decent effort to look after his constituents and their quotidien concerns.

However, Oliver Dowden is a minister in a disastrous government that’s visibly screwed everything up, over a period approaching 13 years. Latest catastrophic highlight: life expectancy in Britain has been flatlining for ten years and is now right at the bottom of the table for the big nations. For the poorest, it’s now falling. It’s worth dwelling on that: in the last ten years (it began long before Covid) our government has managed to reverse over a hundred years of steady improvement in the most basic of wellbeing measures – how long people live.

Anyway, in the last couple of weeks, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been pretty busy. Let’s catch up:

He banned TikTok. Okay, he banned it from government-owned devices. This is Dowden with his cybersecurity hat on (you’ll remember, he wears a lot of hats). Yes it’s pointless, yes it’s irrational, but it’s nice to see a government actually acting against a tech corporation instead of wringing their hands in a kind of supine, passive-aggressive way like they usually do.

A press photo of Prince Charles wearing special glasses on a visit to a laboratory in Hungary
Like this one

One may now obtain a portrait of the King, free of charge, paid for by H.M. Government. Hold on, though. Dowden says it’s not for everyone, just for ‘public authorities’. His announcement says the scheme, which will apparently cost £8M, includes councils, courts, schools, police forces and fire and rescue services but we’re not sure if it covers sarcastic local blogs.

Check your phone, it might be Oliver Dowden. On 23 April, the government is going to send everyone in Britain an urgent text message. They’re testing a new, nationwide alert system that some of the papers are obviously calling ‘armageddon alerts’. It will be used in the event of an emergency, like a war or a natural disaster. Given the scale of the collapse in Conservative support nationally we wouldn’t be at all surprised if the first message said ‘VOTE TORY ON 4 MAY’. This is actually an international system that’s been used in some countries for years. It’s built into your mobile and you can turn it off if you’d rather not have Oliver Dowden freaking you out when the balloon goes up. And do you think they chose Shakespeare’s birthday for a reason? If they did they missed a cast-iron opportunity to call it The Grim Alarm (sorry).

Oliver Dowden knew that the BBC was worried about the appointment of Boris Johnson’s pal as Chairman about five months before he gave Richard Sharp the job. He didn’t do anything about it, though. And, of course, it was only nominally Dowden’s decision – it was Boris Johnson’s and it had already been made.

Here in the constituency, we know that our MP opposes the sale of the old airport land for the construction of a rail freight terminal but it’s been his government’s policy to permit the development for over a decade now, so it must be awkward for a Cabinet Office Minister. Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans has been asking questions in Parliament, though. The last time Dowden did so was in 2020.

The former Minister for Culture has developed an interest in choral music. Actually, it’s not the first time. But now he wants the BBC to reverse its recent decision to close the BBC Singers, Britain’s only full-time, professional chamber choir. Dowden’s Conservative government has cut BBC funding by 30% since 2010.

Fifteen extraordinary people have been recognised for bravery. They’re on the Government’s Civilian Gallantry List, issued for the first time since 2021. This is another Oliver Dowden joint. We would, perhaps tendentiously, contrast this list with Liz Truss’s ‘list of shame’ or even Boris Johnson’s ‘list of cronies’ (which, remember, includes his dad).

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Dowden is ready for action

Still no news from the industrial action taskforce. It’s almost four months since Captain Dowden was put in charge of Rishi Sunak’s crack anti-strikes platoon. We’ve been combing the news ever since and we’re pretty sure he still hasn’t actually done anything and the strikes keep coming. We’ll keep you posted.

Waiting for Sue Gray… again

Oh God, Partygate is back in the news. It’s going to be like the torrid Summer of 2022 all over again.

Senior British civil servant Sue Gray
It’s Sue Gray
  • Oliver Dowden was Sue Gray’s boss until she stepped down last week.
  • In his role as Cabinet Office Minister responsible for propriety and ethics, Dowden will now investigate Gray’s conduct in taking up her new job at the Labour Party.
  • Our MP’s probably saying a little prayer of gratitude that he wasn’t in the Cabinet Office during #WhatsAppGate.

There’s great excitement in government this week, especially in the Cabinet Office. There can’t be anything more thrilling for a minister responsible for propriety and ethics than to get stuck into a case that might make life harder for His Majesty’s Oppostion. The Tory press is also excited. Starmer and Labour have been polling a steady 20 points ahead of the Tories so they’ve grabbed at this story with something resembling desperation.

And cases like this don’t come along very often: it was the Conservatives who invented the revolving door, after all. About 90% of MPs’ income from second jobs goes to Tories and the vast majority of submissions to the appointments watchdog are from Tories. They’ve had the game to themselves for a long time.

Of course, the irony is that making a fuss about Starmer’s frankly weird decision to appoint Sue Gray (is it possible that Starmer is not the strategy ninja we thought him to be?) might just function to remind the electorate about partygate and all the other hilarious pratfalls of the Johnson era. And the fact that the other prominent partygate civil servant, Simon “Wine Fridge” Case, is a main character in this story and in the very, very tawdry WhatsApp drama, can’t help. Apparently he’s thinking of resigning.

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, as the most senior Cabinet Office Minister, sponsors ACOBA, the advisory committee that will now have to decide how long Sue Gray has to wait before taking up the Labour job. Remember, when Dowden was up before the beak himself last year he was required to wait the absolute minimum of three months before taking a handsome wedge from a hedge fund. They have it in their power, though, to ask Gray to wait up to two years – making her, presumably, useless to Labour.

In practice, though, long waits to take up appointments are rare and many think the committee is essentially an easy touch. Hardly anyone is ever forbidden from taking up a job. It would certainly look awkward if the first time ACOBA puts its foot down properly is over a Labour Party appointment.

  • We looked into how ACOBA (the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments) works late last year.
  • Back in 2017, when she was required to investigate the conduct of another Tory minister, BBC Radio 4 profiled Sue Gray.

Captain Dowden’s new national security role

There’s an intriguing detail in Rishi Sunak’s mini-reshuffle*

It wasn’t announced at the time and it wasn’t in any of the newspaper coverage but, although he was overlooked for the big ministerial roles, Oliver Dowden has a new job. If you’ve been paying attention to his government web page you’ll already have noticed there’s a slightly mysterious new item at the bottom of his list of responsibilities: National Security and Investment.

The roles of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, most senior minister in the UK Cabinet Office, at 20 February 2023
Driving delivery of Government’s priorities
Oversight of all Cabinet Office policy
Oversight of civil contingencies & resilience (inc. COBR)
National Security including Cyber Security
Oversight of Cabinet Office business planning
Oversight of Major Events
Propriety and Ethics
Oversight of Cabinet work on science, technology, and innovation
Public Appointments
Honours
GREAT campaign
National Security & Investment
The list quietly got a bit longer

And it turns out that it’s not a minor addition. Sunak chopped up the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, took ‘digital’ out of the culture ministry, set up a new energy security department and moved the Investment Screening Unit, the office that monitors big investments in the UK that might have national security implications, into the Cabinet Office, where it becomes Dowden’s responsibility. The ISU has been in existence for about a year, as an effect of the National Security and Investment Act 2021. The law was originally sponsored by Alok Sharma, then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It was the result of the enormous collective freak-out about (mainly) Chinese investments in Western businesses that marked Donald Trump’s term in office and the return of nationalism in international trade.

The UK law was one of those reflex reactions that often follow a shift in American policy. It’s modelled on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, set up by Gerald Ford and beefed up by Donald Trump in 2018. Other countries in the US orbit also tightened rules on Chinese investment in this period (and there’s obviously a strong parallel with the financial and economic sanctions against Russia introduced by many Western nations after the invasion of Ukraine).

In Britain the unit has ‘called in’ over 100 investments and blocked a total of five. Four were Chinese acquisitions in the UK and one Russian. It’s considered to be effective – reports are produced quickly – but not at all transparent. When deals are not actually blocked conditions can be imposed – and they’re sometimes not strictly national security conditions. An American company was allowed to buy a UK satellite communications business on the condition it created jobs here, for instance. Fascinatingly, the Chinese are not necessarily taking these rulings lying down and are using international law to challenge some, including a huge 5G deal thrown out by the Swedish government.

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

So Oliver Dowden, as the most senior Cabinet Office minister, is now responsible for this unit. And it’s not a nominal role – he becomes the ‘decision maker’ in the unit’s adjudications and could easily find himself testifying before an international tribunal brought by a foreign government. Although most of us didn’t notice the change, the investment industry did. And they’re a bit nervous about it. Corporate law firm Morrison Foerster (known, it says here, as MoFo) says the change “…is likely to result in material disruption to delivery by the ISU in the short term…”

A flow chart explaining the process of referral to the UK government's Investment Screening Unit
How to tell if you need to refer your investment to the government

It’s not obvious why this important job should be tacked onto the end of the long list of things already done in the Cabinet Office but it means that, in addition to ministerial propriety and ethics (Zahawi, Williamson, Raab et al), the strikes taskforce (lol), running the war on woke, organising the coronation, supervising public appointments (e.g. Richard Sharp at the BBC) our MP is now also responsible for stopping the Chinese Communist Party from taking control of UK technology firms.

And that’s before he even gets to his constituency business. Blimey.

  • A useful explainer of the National Security and Investment Act 2021 from another international law firm, Norton Rose Fulbright.
  • And if you feel you might need to refer an investment to the Investment Screening Unit, there’s a web page for that.
  • Just before the reshuffle, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy select committee (which will presumably now have to change its name to reflect reorganised ministries) launched an inquiry into ‘information sharing by the Investment Security Unit’. So that’s another committee for Dowden to attend.

*It may just be us that find this intriguing.

Minister for Flannel

Ministers are regularly required to show up and look credible before the various committees of the UK Parliament

Do us a favour, watch this short clip from Oliver Dowden’s appearance before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday and see if you can figure out what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s ‘propriety and ethics’ team (22 people, we learn) actually does.

We’ve watched it half a dozen times (for we really do need to get out more) and can honestly say that we still have no idea. Grade-A flannel, almost perfect obfuscation (and much disingenuous use of the “I wouldn’t want to prejudice the ongoing inquiry…” defence).

Oliver Dowden – peak Parliamentary flannel

Dowden so effectively frustrates the efforts of the committee chair William Wragg and senior member John McDonnell to find out what that 22-person team would actually do in the event of a ‘flag’ being raised about a Minister’s conduct (like, for instance, if the HMRC alerted the previous Prime Minister to an incoming Minister’s off-shore tax arrangements) that they’re driven back to questions about ‘departmental efficiency’ in no time.

We’ve pointed out many times in the past what a good soldier Dowden is. He can be sent into a situation like this, fraught with political peril, and emerge unscathed, brushing down his suit and moving briskly on to the next messy situation.

We continue to think that a loyal consigliere like Dowden is not cut out for a role at the very top of politics but he could easily continue to circle around the leadership – cleaning up after ministerial indiscretions and digging metaphorical graves – indefinitely (or until the revolving door beckons). A survivor.

The rest of Dowden’s testimony to the committee concerned cost cutting in the civil service (yes to that, apparently), the declining happiness of civil servants (yes to that too). They’re miserable, mainly because their salaries have actually gone down in the last 11 years – strikes are planned. Karin Smyth grills the Minister and his Permanent Secretary on civil contingencies (disasters, terrorism etc.). It is claimed that there’s a new approach to risk so the next time the balloon goes up there’ll be less administrative panic.

The Coronation Claims Office comes up – someone has to be responsible for the comicbook anachronism of Crown ceremonial – and it is Oliver Dowden. He has some more flannel about the obligation of the state to fund the upcoming coronation, apparently forgetting that for almost the whole history of the British Monarchy coronations were not state affairs and required no government money.

The department’s annual report and accounts was scrutinised – and in particular a big increase in costs. Chisholm pins most of the extra cost on big events – Cop26 in Glasgow, a G7, the Grenfell Inquiry etc.

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

We learn that Dowden, on taking up his new role, led an ‘open session’ with civil servants at which he invited them to share their concerns about pay and conditions (just trying to imagine what it was like to attend that open session is making us twitch).

John McDonnell raises some pretty grim data about poverty amongst the lowest-paid civil servants (8% have used a foodbank). Dowden insists that there will be no improvement to this year’s 2% pay increase.

There’s an entertaining vignette illustrating the way the current government’s effort to push back against ‘woke culture’ in the civil service is failing. Ronnie Cowan (SNP) quotes one of Dowden’s predecessors in his role (Jacob Rees-Mogg no less) insisting that all training involving the words ‘diversity, wellness and inclusion’ be cancelled. Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm responds: “the diversity and inclusion strategy is a core part of what the government does and has indeed been renewed twice by subsequent ministers.” The blob pushes back.

  • Useful Cabinet Office explainer from the Institute for Government.
  • The digital team inside Parliament is famously good. Their online coverage of Parliamentary debates, committees etc. is really exemplary. An important window on the operation of government and legislature.
  • The House of Commons Library has just published a fascinating research briefing about coronation history and ceremonial.