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It was so loud, you may well have heard it from the comfort of your constituencies: the sharp intake of breath around Westminster when Nadine Dorries, MP for Mid Bedfordshire, was named Culture Secretary in Boris Johnson’s mega reshuffle. The residents of Whitehall gasped and stretched their eyes in disbelief, and gnashed their teeth in envy.
Culture Secretary? The politician best known as reality television champion gourmet of such delicacies as camel’s toe and ostrich anus? Whose debut book was received by The Telegraph’s own reviewer as “the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years”. Yes, it was true. The woman some MPs (many on her own side) unkindly call “Mad Nad” had been ushered into Government while they had not. How, the question went out, had she done it?
Put it down to another fulsome display of emotion. Not gasps this time, but tears – the salty droplets of despair that Dorries was seen shedding in the wake of Boris Johnson’s emergency withdrawal from the Tory leadership contest in 2016 after he was so comprehensively stabbed in the back by Michael Gove. Johnson is known to reward loyalty. And none come more loyal than Dorries who, perhaps coincidentally at that press conference five years ago when Johnson abandoned the leadership race, reached for comfort in the front row to Nadhim Zahawi, another Boris-backer now promoted.
Yet after these crucial outpourings, there may be a third storm of emotion to come. Could it be the sound of confusion, or cackling, in the corridors of Facebook and Google – and the BBC and Channel 4 – all of whom face serious regulatory challenges from this Government, and yet now find their chief adversary a gaffe-prone minister whose Twitter fingers often seem to work faster than her brain?
Take the long-delayed Online Safety Bill, first introduced as a White Paper in April 2019, and which is currently being scrutinised by MPs. It frames one of the most vital and delicate debates of our times: how to make big technology firms take responsibility for content on their platforms without endangering free speech. At its heart it is about core principles of democracy, about where private profit comes into conflict with public responsibility.
As such, it will certainly prove a bitter fight. The NSPCC this week has already written off the proposed law as failing children, who the charity said have faced a 78 per cent rise in online abuse in the past four years. Facebook, on the other hand, has prepared for battle in a different way. Already the biggest lobbyist in Washington, it has reportedly recruited a series of officials systemically from Whitehall in what Damien Collins, former chair of the Commons culture committee, last year said was an attempt to “change the direction of policy before it is even launched”.
But if Dorries’ new ministry has been filleted by the Silicon Valley giant, it was another departure, announced yesterday, that may prove harder to recover from. John Whittingdale was regarded as a canny, resilient operator in Government scraps with the BBC and Channel 4. Only on Wednesday night, he was giving a speech to the Royal Television Society (ironically, standing in for Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, who himself had just been shuffled on).
“I’m looking forward to working with Nadine,” he said, apparently innocent of his fate, and going on to announce that Channel 4 would, in all likelihood, be sold, but with conditions that preserved public service duties, like independent news and commissioning. It was, he said – in words that must have sent shivers down spines at Broadcasting House – possible to have “public service content and privatisation. We can have both.” Now he is gone.
Not that Dorries won’t echo such sentiments. She has described the BBC as “strident, very Left-wing, often hypocritical and frequently patronising”. When it comes to the culture wars, she delights in swinging away on the front line, rolling up her sleeves and dishing it out to “Left-wing snowflakes [who] are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and suppressing free speech”. When Whittingdale talked approvingly this week of putting the “distinctively British” back into broadcasting, she would surely have been nodding along.
But such willingness to take up cudgels can land her in hot water, too, providing gifts to opponents as well as support to her allies. Executives at the BBC – having scanned Dorries’ previous tweets defending herself from accusations of racism “because I think Chuck [sic] Umunna looks like Chris Eubank”; and realising that she is so trigger-happy on social media that she was warned by her own party to “check the validity” of tweets before posting them – may think they only have to sit back and wait for the minister in charge of defanging them to blow herself up instead.
It’s been a whirlwind 24 hours and I’m already loving it. https://t.co/dWbsYSMp7s
— Nadine Dorries (@NadineDorries) September 16, 2021
If she does, there may not be a host of defenders reaching out to help her. She has made a career of making enemies, deriding David Cameron and George Osborne as “arrogant posh boys”; describing her fellow Conservative MP Kris Hopkins as “one of Parliament’s slimiest, nastiest MPs”; lambasting John Bercow and Philip Hammond; calling Andrew Mitchell MP “a bastard” and John Major a “traitor”. She even referred to anti-Brexit broadcaster James O’Brien as a “public school f---wit”, despite sending two of her own daughters to the same school – Ampleforth – that he attended.
No wonder that some sharp-eyed observers in Westminster are already taking bets on how long she will last. But others point out that her victims are precisely the people that a Boris Johnson administration is intent on winding up.
“My impression,” says Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson, “is that he thinks it is quite funny to annoy the prigs.” It could be politically canny, too. “I think it’s a trap for the bien-pensant liberals who will only end up sounding snobbish and elitist if they immediately criticise her,” he says.
It is a particular conundrum for Labour, currently run by an Islington QC, to lambast a former nurse who grew up poor in Liverpool. Her father was a bus driver and died in his 40s. “I had an impoverished childhood,” she said back in 2007. “I had to borrow shoes from a friend to go to school.” Her ex-husband worked in mining. Her background makes Dorries far more natural Labour material than Sir Keir Starmer. And yet she loathes the Left. “Her appointment has great symbolic value for the whole Johnson project,” says Gimson.
That background also cloaks her in the personal authenticity which is so prized in politics today. She is uncensored; her views are felt, not calculated. As with her books, that may not go down well with critics, but it can be extremely popular.
So is her appointment masterstroke or miscalculation? If it all does go wrong Dorries, 64, may not care. The irony of this promotion is that it has come just as retirement began to beckon. This reshuffle is a reminder that the next election is only a couple of years round the corner. Will “Mad Nad” stand again? Or will she go out blazing long before?
It won’t be boring finding out.