“We would be idiots not to have Boris. He’d take the party back to the highlands again pretty easily. He’s won two major elections, and nobody else in the party matches that at the moment,” Nadine Dorries told me over a fillet steak in June 2013, during a lunch interview for Total Politics magazine.
“He will be a leader of the Tory Party, there’s no doubt.”
Viewed at the time as an eccentric backbencher who was more at home eating ostrich anus and baked spiders in the I’m a Celebrity jungle than playing the Westminster game, her political instincts — it turned out — were absolutely right.
Her long-held loyalty towards Boris Johnson, who was then a year into his second term as mayor of London, has been rewarded. The same month that her preferred candidate finally made it into the John Lewis-afflicted interior of No 10 in 2019, she was appointed health minister. During the September 2021 reshuffle she made it to the cabinet table as Culture Secretary, where she remains, calling time on the BBC and mistaking Channel 4 for a taxpayer-funded broadcaster.
It’s been quite a journey since she told me over that lunch that she would “absolutely hate” higher office.
“Imagine being the minister for paperclips and only being able to speak about paperclips, I’d hate it,” she said back then. “I couldn’t actually think of anything worse. Look at ministers. They get a minister’s job and you never hear from them again.”
This isn’t quite how it’s worked out for Minister Dorries, however.
As partygate has ravaged Downing Street and the Conservative parliamentary party, she has been one of the most visible supporters for the Prime Minister on our screens. (This is despite claiming, at a November 2021 select committee hearing, that “I don’t do any news, unless I am absolutely forced to”.)
Defending Johnson’s actions in interviews so bizarre they are being spoofed on social media, Dorries had an extraordinarily awkward exchange with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News over Johnson’s lie that Keir Starmer personally failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile, and recently baffled BBC Breakfast’s Charlie Stayt by refusing to say whether she’d spoken to Johnson. (One MP observed to me that the Culture Secretary had no books on her shelves in the background, but “she had a stapler, so that was interesting”.)
These media outings — now circulating on the Gen Z entertainment app of choice, TikTok — have introduced Dorries’s combative, near-contemptuous style to a new generation who may have missed her appearance on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in 2012 and the ensuing drama.
At the time she temporarily had the whip suspended and was decried by many in the party for abandoning her Mid Bedfordshire constituents for the reality TV stint in Australia. “Sadly Ms Dorries’ actions have diminished the reputation of Parliament at a time when public trust in politicians is still recovering from the expenses crisis,” wrote Rob Oxley, then of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, for politics.co.uk. “[By] pursuing a Z-list career on a popular, but ultimately trivial, TV programme thousands of miles away from this country.”
He is now one of Dorries’s special advisers.
First to be voted off the show by viewers, she donated her MP’s salary for the duration of her appearance to charity, and had the whip restored after a few months. She enjoyed a “Return of the Prodigal Daughter” party to celebrate, said to have been hosted by Andrew Mitchell (who had himself recently been through the “plebgate” scandal) and David Davis. Both MPs are now urging Johnson to resign.
Dorries, now 64, was elected in 2005. She became best-known in the coalition years for calling David Cameron and George Osborne “two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.
A social conservative with Catholic heritage who tried to introduce stricter time limits on abortion, she didn’t quash rumours that she would defect to Ukip at that time. In 2013 she told me that the Tories should run joint candidacies with Ukip in the 2015 general election (“I’d have exactly the same values as the Ukip candidates standing against me.”)
The Cameroon elite insist they were not rattled by her pot-shots; they didn’t take her seriously then and don’t now, according to insiders who were present at the time. They did note, however, the irony of her support for the Old Etonian Johnson, who not only said in 2013 that he didn’t know the price of a pint of milk but boasted: “I can tell you the price of a bottle of champagne.”
Like her leader, she provokes outrage.
In 2013, she threatened to nail the Sunday Mirror reporter Ben Glaze’s “balls to the floor”, accused the paper’s journalists of being “bottom-feeding scum” and in 2017 she called the LBC presenter James O’Brien a “public school posh boy f*** wit” (two of her daughters attended the same school as him). She also retweeted (but later deleted) a tweet calling O’Brien a “UK hater & an apologist for Islamist atrocities”.
Last year she riled the BBC by deriding one of its political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s sources as “ridiculous”. This month she also risked angering the new generation of Tory MPs by decrying Anthony Mangnall, of the 2019 intake, as an “ego” and “selfish” for writing a letter of no confidence in Johnson.
“I’d never heard of Nadine Dorries before she got this [Culture Sectetary] gig because I don’t watch the jungle and I didn’t know about the kangaroo testicles,” says John Nicolson MP, the SNP’s culture spokesman, who recently grilled Dorries over her tweets at the culture select committee.
“I did a bit of due diligence and my team and I discovered this catalogue of appalling tweets. This seemed deeply ironic to me because she is responsible for online disinformation, and legislation which outlines a duty to behave properly online,” he tells me.
Coupled with policy gaffes, such as erroneously claiming Channel 4 was publicly funded, this wildcard approach makes many in Westminster question whether she is a helpful defender of the Prime Minister. “She is not known as ‘Mad Nad’ among colleagues for nothing,” says one veteran Tory MP, who has worked closely with her in the past.
“She’s developed a technique where she uses monosyllables in the Commons and answers questions with ‘no’ or ‘yes’ and slams down her notes,” says Nicolson. “I think members are not entirely convinced by this performance and there is a suspicion that she does this not out of a desire for brevity but because she doesn’t know the answer.”
Yet there is a whiff of sexism and snobbery towards Dorries, a former nurse who grew up on a council estate in Liverpool, which she feels keenly — feeling particularly betrayed by female journalists who denigrate her character.
Her I’m a Celebrity outing was an attempt to make politicians more relatable, a mission she has also pursued by speaking publicly about the pain of female hair loss and appearing on Channel 4’s Tower Block of Commons documentary (when she cheated at living on Jobseeker’s Allowance by hiding a £50 note in her bra).
She is a successful author: her Four Streets and Lovely Lane series of novels, based on growing up in Liverpool, were best-sellers, though they were savaged by critics. In publishing, this hostile response is thought more to be from reviewers engaging with Dorries the politician than Dorries the novelist.
“She is one of our top-selling authors and much-loved by those of us who have worked closely with her; she is an absolute natural as a writer and storyteller,” Rosie de Courcy, her editor at the publishing house Head of Zeus, tells me. “She’s just someone who, as a woman, would always have your back. Enormously kind when anyone is in trouble. Shrewd, warm, down-to-earth and unshockable, with a very good sense of humour.”
Once the Tories’ “prodigal daughter”, Nadine Dorries continues on her surreal journey from outspoken rebel to staunch loyalist.