The thankless work of a Party Chairman

An open letter to the Leader of the Opposition, from Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party Oliver Dowden.

Oliver Dowden, our MP, is Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party. It’s an unelected role that’s in the gift of the leader of the party (Boris Johnson), so it’s often used as a place to ‘park’ useful Ministers while they’re out of formal office (this also explains why there’s quite often more than one Chairman – it’s a kind of waiting area for soon-to-be-recycled ministers). While the party is in government the Chairman is also typically given a sinecure role such as Minister without Portfolio, which allows them to attend cabinet meetings.

In his role as Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden is required to do a fair amount of political spade work – defending the party leadership, keeping the latest policy wheezes in the news, rallying the troops at conferences, carrying the message to sympathetic foreigners, that kind of thing.

Today’s grunt work is a strongly-worded open letter to the leader of the opposition, part of a dizzying 36 hours in Westminster politics that seems worth a closer look. Let’s try to put Dowden’s letter into a sequence:

  1. Tuesday evening (19 April). Boris Johnson attends a meeting of Tory MPs, ostensibly to apologise for partygate and rally the troops. He takes the opportunity to criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury and the BBC. As expected, the content of his speech is quickly made public.
  2. Later Tuesday evening. Friendly media outlets are briefed about the speech – that the PM asserted that the Archbishop has been more critical of the Government’s plan to deport refugees to Rwanda than he has been of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance. Also that the PM was unhappy about the criticism of the plan on the BBC.
  3. Wednesday morning. This is where it gets complicated. The press may also have been briefed that the PM was unhappy with the BBC’s coverage of Ukraine. On Wednesday’s Today on BBC Radio 4, Justin Webb picks up this line and grills Paul Scully, the unfortunate junior minister who happens to be on duty that morning, about the Prime Minister’s criticism of BBC journalism – “can you come up with an occasion when Boris Johnson has put his life on the line for the truth as Jeremy Bowen has, as Lyse Doucet has, as Clive Myrie has?” Webb’s line of questioning becomes part of the story, of course. There are complaints and a line is provided by the BBC press office (quoted in this Telegraph article).
  4. Wednesday lunchtime. Webb’s line of questioning obviously hits home, though, and when Keir Starmer accuses Johnson of slandering “decent people in a private room” and says “how can the Prime Minister claim to be a patriot when he deliberately attacks and degrades the institutions of our great country?” at Prime Minister’s Questions, The PM responds furiously – “…he must be out of his tiny mind…”
  5. Wednesday afternoon. So, by now the disagreement comes down to whether the PM criticised the BBC’s coverage of the Rwanda plan or its coverage of the Ukraine war (or both) in his speech to MPs.
  6. Thursday morning. Central Office concludes that this calumny – that the Prime Minister has criticised the BBC for its coverage of the Ukraine war – cannot stand and must be tackled head-on. One aspect of the response is Oliver Dowden’s letter to Keir Starmer, published on his Twitter account. It catalogues Boris Johnson’s various defences of press freedom (not a very long list, in truth) and finishes with a routine reminder that the Labour Party was once led by a Kremlin apologist. Ministers tour the breakfast studios to demand an apology from Starmer, newspapers pick up the letter and run it under headlines like Sir Keir Starmer told to retract claims Boris Johnson criticised BBC’s Ukraine coverage (The Telegraph) and Boris Johnson ally suggests he shouldn’t apologise to Commons – but Keir Starmer should (The Mirror).

And this is all in a day’s work for a hard-working Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

  • The Conservative Party has a useful page about the duties of the Party Chairman. Oliver Dowden’s letter is on Dowden’s own Twitter, not on the Party’s web site or even on an official Twitter account. Does anyone archive this stuff? Are Government librarians scouring MPs’ social media for material? Will historians be able to access statements like this in the distant future? Or does it actually serve politicians that official statements are now no more permanent than tweets?

Oliver Dowden on partygate

A photograph taken from a window at Number 10 Downing Street in May 2020, showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson (with her newborn baby Wilfred) and two aides thought to be Dominic Cummings and Martin Reynolds. Part of a larger image that shows other staff on the lawn neyond the terrace.
The Prime Minister and Number 10 staff during the first national lockdown

UPDATE 13 April 2022. As expected, the Prime Minister’s fixed penalty notice has arrived (two in the letterbox in fact). Our MP was not the only loyalist to be dropped in it by the news, of course, although Oliver Dowden’s “…he is not going to be subject to a fixed-penalty notice because he is confident that he has not broken the law” from three weeks ago was more fulsome than most. Along with dozens of other Tory MPs, Dowden has now shared the official line:

Fixed penalties are starting to land on the doormats of Conservative Party staff, civil servants and, quite possibly, MPs and ministers. We don’t know how many have been issued but the BBC says it’ll be at least 15 but more likely 20 and there may be a second and subsequent batches. The investigation takes in 12 events, though, so it seems unlikely it’ll stop at 20.

From the Telegraph we get this complicated construction: “Downing Street said Boris Johnson has not been told by the Metropolitan Police that he is being fined over the ‘partygate’ scandal.” The Met won’t be providing a list of those fined (they don’t normally publish the names of people issued with fixed penalties) but we’re willing to bet you a tenner right now that there’ll soon be a list in the public domain. Still no word on the Prime Minister, although his promise to tell us if he is fined presumably still stands.

So, although as Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio his loyalty is obviously guaranteed, it’s possible that Oliver Dowden was going out on a limb a bit last week when he told James O’Brien on LBC:

The prime minister is actually absolutely resolutely clear that he is not going to be subject to a fixed-penalty notice because he is confident that he has not broken the law.

Oliver Dowden, LBC, 21 March 2022

The mood music this week suggests Johnson’s innocence is not quite such a sure thing, though. You’ll find a dozen news and opinion pieces since we learnt that fines were imminent, even in the Tory press, that suggest Johnson’s partygate woes are not over, even that his leadership may still be in peril. The Evening Standard, for instance, owned by the Prime Minister’s friend Evgeny Lebedev, is pretty sure that ‘a day of reckoning’ is coming, although the loyalists questioned are pretty sure that it won’t be till after the Ukraine crisis.

And then there’s the Sue Gray report (bet you’d forgotten about that), the final, unexpurgated, version of which is due after the Met’s investigation is finished.