Voices: Oliver Dowden’s resignation is part of a plan to make Rishi Sunak prime minister

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The Tories are in peril, and Dowden is at the heart of a network that thinks Sunak is best placed to save them (AFP/Getty)
The Tories are in peril, and Dowden is at the heart of a network that thinks Sunak is best placed to save them (AFP/Getty)

One of Jeremy Hunt’s supporters claimed that Oliver Dowden had resigned from the cabinet to run Rishi Sunak’s leadership campaign, after the Conservative chair quit early on Friday morning after two by-election losses.

There may be other reasons for Dowden’s resignation. He never wanted a backroom role running the party organisation in the first place. After a stint as culture secretary, he hoped for education, but his reputation as a strategist made the party job seem to Boris Johnson to be a good fit. Despite his bland persona in media interviews, some Tories compare Dowden to Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell in his instinctive feel for political combat.

He may have jumped before he was pushed. He may have feared that Johnson, whose loyalty to friends and allies is like an unreliable phone signal, was going to sack him as a way of displacing responsibility for losing Tiverton and Wakefield. Hence the resignation letter published at 5.35am after a phone call to the hotel in Kigali where the prime minister had just got out of the swimming pool.

It is one of the more striking such letters – and there have been many in recent years with which it can be compared. It said, “Somebody must take responsibility,” not just for the by-elections, which are only “the latest in a run of very poor results for our party”, but also for “recent events” that have “distressed and disappointed” our supporters. In other words, for the lockdown parties in Downing Street that have called Johnson’s judgement into question – and Dowden added: “I share their feelings.”

So Dowden thinks someone must take responsibility, but not him. He said his decision to resign was a “personal” one, “that I have taken alone”. Translation: “I am not part of a plot.” But there was nothing about supporting the prime minister from the back benches, which is the usual form. And he signed off with: “I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party.” You don’t need to know much about the history of Tory bloodletting to hear the echo of Geoffrey Howe’s invitation to Michael Heseltine to stand against Margaret Thatcher in 1990: “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.”

It is almost as if Dowden, like Howe, was accusing his leader of breaking his cricket bat before sending him to the crease.

The most important reason for Dowden’s resignation, then, is that he thinks it is time for a new prime minister. One of the few things that is keeping Johnson in place is the absence of an obvious alternative, but of the less obvious candidates to replace him, Dowden must favour Rishi Sunak. They are friends who worked together to make Johnson prime minister in 2019. They co-wrote a significant article in The Times with Robert Jenrick, another junior minister, headlined: “The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us.”

Now the Tories are in peril again, and Dowden is at the heart of a network that thinks Sunak is best placed to save them. Dowden has been close to the centre of power since he was deputy chief of staff to David Cameron. He helped prepare Cameron for Prime Minister’s Questions, and has done the same for Johnson. “PMQs prep” is the inside track of the inside track. Cameron did it for Michael Howard. Dowden’s first job in politics was at Conservative HQ when Howard was leader of the opposition. It may or may not be a coincidence that Lord Howard this week said that Johnson should go. What is not a coincidence, though, is that so many of the Cameroons look to Sunak as the next prime minister.

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The exception is George Osborne, the former chancellor, who said last week that Sunak had been “flushed down the drainpipe and has to climb back up again”, and that he was “quite a fan” of Liz Truss, the foreign secretary.

Dowden would now seem to be part of an operation to help Sunak climb back up again from his heartless spring statement and the revelation of his wife’s non-dom tax status. This may be a difficult task. It may be that Sunak’s personal wealth will continue to count against him when so many people are feeling financially squeezed.

Sunak’s attempt to offer himself as a law-abiding respecter of rules and a leader of personal integrity is also complicated by his penalty notice for attending a gathering to celebrate the prime minister’s birthday during coronavirus restrictions.

But it looks as if there will be a serious attempt to present the chancellor as the candidate of proven competence. We had a glimpse of Johnson’s survival strategy in his interviews in Rwanda today: the message was “like it or lump it”. He was not going to change; no one else has any different policies; with the implied challenge: if not me, who?

That is why Dowden’s resignation is important. It is more significant than both the by-elections put together. By-election defeats can be recoverable, but once a majority of Tory MPs have decided that Johnson cannot recover from them – and, crucially, that another leader could – then he will have to go.

The critical question, then, is whether Dowden can persuade the Conservative Party that Sunak is the one who can save it this time.

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