Andrew Bowie knows better than most people how it feels to be close to a prime minister at the centre of a political storm. On the morning that the Metropolitan Police announced it would be carrying out a criminal investigation into the Downing Street parties, the Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine sat in his office in parliament, with a view overlooking the gates to that famous street, and remarked: “I know what they’re going through in 10 Downing Street right now. I know the discussions that will be being had. They’ll be playing out different scenarios: what happens if this, that, the next thing.”
He laughs that, as one of the closest people to Theresa May in the final months of her premiership, they never had to withstand a police investigation or a defection to the Labour Party. “But I was obviously there at the time when we were working hard to try and maintain her authority over the party, maintain her premiership, and to deliver her vision for Brexit and, indeed, her vision on many other important issues.” Bowie understands the “personal emotions involved”, in these scandal-ridden times for Boris Johnson, for those around a prime minister in what could well be their final days in the role. “You feel a real bond of loyalty to the prime minister that you serve. No matter your opinion on the situation or what the issue might be that’s causing waters to be as choppy as they are, you want to see them succeed.”
As a young and newly-elected MP Bowie, now 34, enjoyed the rare opportunity of serving as Theresa May’s PPS (parliamentary private secretary) from December 2018 until she left office, essentially acting as a go-between for the prime minister and her MPs. He was by her side on the tearful day she went to tell the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs that she would step down if her Brexit deal passed. He was desperate to lighten the mood as he walked over to the committee with her, he recalls, “and the only thing I could think of asking her was if she’d ever had a fish finger sandwich.” May gave him a bemused stare, but she did, eventually, laugh.
Her ousting “was a policy issue, it was the [Brexit] deal, but there was a lot of misogyny as well”, he says. “It was dreadful, actually, the way that some people on her own side behaved, acted and spoke about and towards her. I do feel a great deal of affection towards her, and I’m still very loyal to her. I really do hope that history will treat her better than some in our party treated her at the time.”
For all that Bowie was and is loyal to May, he went on to support Boris Johnson in the leadership election that followed and took up the position of vice-chairman of the party under his leadership. But then things started to unravel. His support for the Prime Minister’s judgement wavered during the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle saga, which he defended at the time. “Do I regret not saying anything at the time? Maybe. In fact, yeah, probably. Yeah, I do, now that you come to mention it. But at the time, I just felt that adding my name to a story, whilst it might have been great to have my five minutes of fame, I don’t think would have been helpful. What is more helpful is to stay in the tent and to make your arguments inside.”
Bowie quietly stepped down during the Owen Paterson scandal, which was “maybe the straw that broke the camel’s back”, he says. “The Conservative Party is like a family to me. So to have been given the opportunity to serve, firstly as the prime minister’s PPS under Theresa May and then as the vice-chairman for this party that I love and have campaigned for most of my adult life, it was an incredible and extraordinary honour. But I was just very uncomfortable with defending the government over that, and I took the decision to step away, to focus on my constituency, because I’m very much of the view that Scotland requires Conservative representation, and that if we are going to stop the SNP juggernaut, we need to have bits of blue on that map”.
Bowie insists that when it comes to the party scandal he is waiting to see the full facts of the Sue Gray report or the police investigation, “whichever one comes first”. He admits, however, that it is “a difficult place to be” as a Conservative at the moment, especially as a Scottish Conservative MP in Westminster, after Jacob Rees-Mogg referred to Douglas Ross, the Scottish party leader, as a “lightweight” in the wake of his calls for Boris Johnson to resign.
“Jacob was wrong and he should apologise,” Bowie says. “It helps nobody. I understand Jacob was angry, and I understand that he’s very close personally to the Prime Minister, but it doesn’t help anybody to have the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, who, by the way, is at the forefront of taking the battle to keep this country together, to have him denigrated in the way that he was by a colleague in this place. Douglas expressed an opinion that the Prime Minister should resign. That’s a very principled position to hold and, you know, whatever you think of how he did it or when he did it – obviously, I’ve got a difference of opinion, I’m waiting for the full facts before I make my decision about what should happen, although I’m pretty much there already – it was not helpful for anybody for Jacob to do that.”
Bowie is plainly uncomfortable risking appearing disloyal to the Conservative “family”. But “I’m pretty much there already”, muttered under his breath, shows how he is really feeling about Boris Johnson.
His experience by May’s side means he is all too aware of the “emotional trauma” of ousting a prime minister and the bitter leadership election that follows. “I was standing on Downing Street beside Philip May when Theresa May announced she was leaving, and she broke down, right on the street. To stand there beside the partner of a person who’s going through the most public humiliation imaginable, admitting that you had failed to millions of people and that you were leaving the job that you absolutely loved and had fought for years to get into, that’s dreadful. And the same thing would have to happen again.”
However, Bowie seems more prepared to be himself, to own his loyalty to May, and to David Cameron. “How I would best describe myself actually is a Cameroon,” he remarks at one point in our interview. “It was David Cameron that convinced me to join the Conservative Party. It was David Cameron that changed this party and made it more acceptable for young people in Britain in the mid-2000s to say, ‘I am a Conservative and I’m proud to be, I’m going to vote for it, and I’m actually going to join it and I’m actually going to run for office.’ ”
As Johnson’s authority weakens, those who gritted their teeth to support him are less prepared to hide their true political identities in backing a leader they don’t entirely align with. “I’ve said before that I think he should be considering his position,” Bowie says. “As we are all considering his position.”