Who is Michelle Donelan, the new Culture Secretary? We’ve got the lowdown

·9-min read
Michelle Donelan MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport leaves Downing Street on September 6 (Getty Images)
Michelle Donelan MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport leaves Downing Street on September 6 (Getty Images)

Michelle Donelan was appointed as our new Culture Secretary yesterday evening, replacing Nadine Dorries.

As Prime Minister Liz Truss scrambled to form her new government, Donelan was in the running alongside heavy-hitters Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch but then nearly didn’t get the job at all: Truss first offered it to Dorries, who opted instead to resign.

But, the dust has settled and the Chippenham MP has won the spot. Mordaunt has been appointed leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council while Badenoch will be International Trade Secretary and President of the Board of Trade.

So who is Donelan? What is her (political) history? Here’s everything there is to know about the MP.

What’s the job role?

Donelan’s official title is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and she will oversee strategy, funding and policy for everything that falls under that banner.

She’s replacing the divisive Dorries, a fierce Johnson ally who was a former actor and bestselling e-book author (she brought out her first book The Four Streets while she was an MP; The Telegraph’s Christopher Howse called it “the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years”).

Dorries had been working to try and privatise Channel 4 and to freeze the BBC license fee, with plans to abolish it by 2027, so those involved on all sides are on tenterhooks to find out whether Donelan plans to complete these initiatives.

If Donelan does her boss’s bidding, she’s likely to push forward with Dorries’ plans to squeeze BBC funding: an FT article published in January said, “Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, backed Dorries but said it was vital that the BBC World Service had generous funding to counter disinformation from countries including Russia and China”.

Plus, Truss told reporters in July, “Where possible, it’s best to have companies operating in the private sector rather than the public sector. I will look in detail at the business case on Channel 4.”

A short, packed, Parliamentary career - plus one record broken

Although Donelan isn’t yet a household name, she has been an MP since 2015 when she won in the Wiltshire safe seat Chippenham.

She became Government Whip (Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury) in July 2019, Minister for Universities at the Department for Education in September 2020 and then Minister of State for Higher and Further Education in September 2021, a position she held until the following July when she was promoted to Secretary of State for Education.

Incredibly, she was in the job for just two days, making her the shortest-serving Cabinet member in British history (breaking a 239-year-old record). To give Donelan her dues, she didn’t make a gigantic gaff and get herself fired. She was appointed to the role during Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle in the wake of the Chris Pincher scandal - Donelan was replacing Nadhim Zahawi who became the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Then just 36 hours later, she resigned alongside around 50 other ministers.

“Yesterday I pleaded with you to do the right thing and resign for the sake of our country,” she wrote in her resignation letter to Boris Johnson that she took a slightly blurry picture of and then shared on her Twitter. “In life we must always do what we believe in right. Above all I am here to serve the British public,” she wrote.

She’s always loved politics

Donelan had apparently wanted to be a politician since she was 6 years old (she was reportedly inspired by seeing her Dad struggle with his home improvement business, making Donelan a very astute child). She attended a state school in Cheshire, the County High School, Leftwich, and was the first in her family to go to university.

She spoke at the Conservative Party conference when she was 15 (a year younger than William Hague), and read history and politics at York University where she was reportedly involved in York Student Television.

“I’m not from a political family by any stretch of the imagination at all, so they were as shocked as everyone else, to be honest,” said Donelan to the New Statesman in May. “The more I learned about as I grew up, the more I thought, yeah, this is the career for me. I wasn’t the most popular kid at school, it didn’t give me much street cred.”

A stint at WWE

Although there are few details on the matter, one of the standout facts about Donelan’s career is that she briefly worked at the wrestling promotion company WWE (as an International Marketing Communications Manager). She also worked in Australia for Pacific Magazines (the magazine publisher company behind Marie Claire Australia, InStyle and Women’s Health) and for The History Channel.

Hobbies

“I don’t get very much spare time, but when I do I enjoy taking my beautiful dog Bella for walks across our stunning Wiltshire countryside,” says Donelan on her website. The 38-year-old MP is reportedly also a practising Christian. In June 2018 she spoke at a select committee about the global persecution of Christians and has partaken in a debate in Parliament on the subject too. As far as it has been possible to ascertain, she keeps any enthusiasm for the arts to herself.

Voting record?

Donelan has voted against initiatives to protect the environment from climate change, and in July 2019 voted against legalising abortion in certain circumstances in Northern Ireland. She also voted against legalising civil partnerships between couples who are not the same sex in Northern Ireland.

Conservative Future

In 2010 Donelan appeared in a Guardian article about student activism which also featured ex-Liberal leader Jo Swinson. At the time she was a press and media development officer for the now disbanded youth organisation Conservative Future (it was shut down following bullying and blackmail allegations). Speaking about getting involved in politics while at university she said: “There are people from that time who will be friends for life and who are getting seats in parliament now, so you grow up together.”

According to a 2010 The Sydney Morning Herald piece, the then 25-year-old Donelan had “set up several Conservative Future branches”.

Women in parliament

Back in 2010, Donelan penned an article on Conservative Home about the number of female politicians in government. At the time, just four women had been appointed ministerial positions in David Cameron’s new Cabinet. She was against introducing quotas: “Tackling gender inequalities in Parliament is important, but we must not let it consume us – where would it stop, for ethnic minorities, for religious representation, for set minimums for homosexuals in Parliament? It would turn into government by percentages,” she said.

“I do not want to see a country which legislates quotas for its female parliamentarians because quotas do not lead to quality. I want the best politicians to be in the key posts – be they women or men who are black or white and gay or straight.”

Culture Wars

Weighing in to the free speech debate when she was Higher Education Minister, in October 2021 Donelan spoke to The Telegraph about the resignation of Professor Kathleen Stock from the University of Sussex over her position on transgender issues. She said the departure should “sound the alarm about the threat to free speech on our campuses”.

She said: “We are putting forward new legislation designed to stop situations like this one from ever happening again.”

She is a major supporter of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which has now passed Parliament and has completed its second reading in the House of Lords. The bill will require universities and their student bodies to protect free speech. Speaking to The Telegraph, Donelan said that there would be “consequences for institutions that put at risk academic freedom”.

“I expect vice-chancellors up and down the country to work with us in bringing about a culture change in our universities, one which celebrates robust debate and champions freedom of speech,” she said.

Donelan was also an architect of the January-launched Universities NDA Pledge to try and get universities to stop using NDA agreements to pacify people who come forward with sexual harassment cases. “Sexual harassment is horrendous and complainants should never be bought or bullied into silence simply to protect the reputation of their university. Such agreements make it harder for other victims to come forward and help hide perpetrators behind a cloak of anonymity,” she said.

“The use of Non-Disclosure Agreements to buy victims’ silence is a far cry from their proper purpose, for example, to protect trade secrets. I am determined to see this shabby practice stamped out on our campuses, which is why last year I wrote to vice-chancellors making my position clear.”

What are people saying online?

On the whole, reaction to her appointment has been pretty lukewarm. There are, naturally, some critics, but the response is nothing compared to the response whipped up by Dorries’ appointment.

“I’m sure everyone can remember what Michelle Donelan has done for culture within her own constituency. Absolutely nothing,” Tweeted one critic.

“Oh great, can’t wait to see what anti-“woke” warrior, Michelle Donelan, makes of ‘Culture’. Is there no realm the Tories won’t leave us to practice tolerance and compassion in peace?” Tweeted another.

“Well, at least we can be pretty certain that Michelle Donelan will last longer as Culture Secretary than she did as Education Secretary,” joked another.