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Who is the real Oliver Dowden?

Is the Deputy Prime Minister’s anti-wokeness sincere or just an act?

By Freddie Hayward

Oliver Dowden is just a normal guy. That’s what everyone will tell you. It’s how he describes himself. He went to a normal school. He had a normal upbringing. He understands normal people.

But the deputy prime minister doesn’t have a normal job. A long-standing ally of Rishi Sunak, he was promoted when his predecessor, Dominic Raab, left the government in April. Dowden, who managed Sunak’s leadership campaign, now deputises for his boss at Prime Minister’s Questions. He chaired eight meetings of Cobra, the government’s emergencies committee, during the evacuation of Sudan. He leads the government’s plans for economic security and works with Sunak’s core political team, including his senior aides James Forsyth and Rupert Yorke. The Prime Minister turns to him when Whitehall departments disagree.

In recent weeks he reportedly angered Boris Johnson‘s followers because they thought he was involved in the Cabinet Office’s decision to hand the former prime minister’s diaries, which allegedly showed further breaches of Covid-19 rules, to the police (Dowden denies this). But with most Conservatives he has built a reputation for solving problems in a methodical and dispassionate way. They view him as a fixer, a backroom boy.

“He would always see himself as the person whose greatest strength is operating behind the scenes,” notes one senior Tory MP. “He’s like a polite hotel manager who hopes you’ve enjoyed your stay, but would be surprised to hear if you hadn’t,” says another. “He’s funny, he’s f***ing funny,” says a friend. Most of all, the friend notes, he’s “very much in touch with normality. He’s thoroughly normal.” In many ways, his ascension to deputy prime minister formalised reality: he was already running much of the government away from the media’s gaze. As an ally put it, “He’s been in the room from the start.”

Dowden has been at the centre of power in the Conservative Party for two decades. He spent the 2000s in senior positions at party headquarters, such as political director and head of the Conservative Research Department. He prepped Michael Howard for Prime Minister’s Questions alongside Boris Johnson, George Osborne and David Cameron.

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When Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he brought Dowden into No 10 as his deputy chief of staff. Cameron relied on the young Cambridge graduate. He played the role of Ed Miliband each Wednesday morning before PMQs. Cameron nicknamed him the “undertaker” because he was the deliverer of bad news. He once sat in the basement of No 10 for hours trawling through CCTV footage with Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, trying to determine whether Andrew Mitchell, the chief whip, had called a policeman guarding the Downing Street gate a “pleb”.

In rehearsals for the 2015 general election TV debates he was given the part of Nigel Farage. According to The Gatekeeper, by Kate Fall, a former Cameron adviser, he accepted the role reluctantly, anxious that his new persona wouldn’t leak to the press as he sought to become an MP. Five years later he would be less concerned about being associated with the right.

His knowledge of the party meant he had been responsible for scouting out new talent on the candidates list. Dowden met Sunak during this process. He and Sunak would eventually stand against each other to be the Conservative candidate in Hertsmere for the 2015 general election. Against three other candidates, Dowden won more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, according to Michael Ashcroft’s Going for Broke, a biography of Sunak. If you had asked a close observer of Conservative Party politics in 2015 who was more likely to become prime minister, Dowden or Sunak, they’d probably have said: “Who is Rishi Sunak?”

[See also: Rishi Sunak must stop trying to appease Boris Johnson over Covid inquiry]

In the summer of 2019, now ensconced in the House of Commons as the Brexit battles raged, Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden interviewed Boris Johnson for an hour at Jenrick’s house. The conversation must have gone well. On 5 June the three junior ministers argued in the Times that Johnson was the only Conservative leadership candidate who could save both the country and the party from the threat of Corbynism. The endorsement from three feted young colleagues, widely considered to be the future of the party, reassured MPs that they should bet on the rogue former foreign secretary.

It paid off. Johnson rewarded Dowden with his first cabinet position as culture secretary in February 2020. As Covid-19 spread he negotiated with Sunak, by now chancellor, to secure £1.57bn for culture and the arts. “He is quite willing to do the work for someone else to get the benefit, which is a rarity in politics,” an ally notes. His friends mention his canny move to block the unpopular European Super League, leading to the elite football competition collapsing three days after the plans were announced, as evidence of his sharp judgement.

But his raison d’être as culture secretary became clear during the moral reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. This was the summer when a statue of the Conservative Party’s hero Winston Churchill was put in a metal box to protect it from protesters. The Daily Telegraph put Conservatives on guard against Black Lives Matter, a “radical neo-Marxist political movement”. For three weeks, protests raged.

Dowden strode towards the debate. Over the next two years he castigated this new social ideology, this wokeness, as “Maoism” and a “dangerous form of decadence”. He boasted that the government had told teachers that it was illegal to teach white privilege as an undisputed fact. He condemned “woke culture” as contrary to the “great liberal traditions of Western democracies”. He made sure government buildings flew the Union flag. He criticised the English Cricket Board’s suspension of Oliver Robinson for decade-old racist tweets.

David Cameron was hailed as a Tory moderniser, leading the party into a more socially liberal future. Barely the length of a parliamentary term after Cameron left Downing Street one of his acolytes was resisting new social movements. Did Dowden hope to further Johnson’s divide and distract culture wars strategy or was he genuinely fearful of a new generation of British Maoists? What explained his move from Cameroon to culture warrior? Had the country changed, or had he? Is he still just a normal guy?

[See also: Mehdi Hasan on 110 years of the New Statesman: “David Cameron didn’t like me”]

“We weren’t a political family in any way,” Dowden told Nick Robinson on the Political Thinking podcast in 2021. “We were ordinary in the normal sense of the word.” His father worked in a factory and his mother worked in Boots. Dowden attended a state school near his constituency and his wife is a primary school teacher.

Who are his influences? “His nan,” one friend replies without a pause. Dowden has recounted how his grandmother on his mother’s side would sit on the end of his bed lamenting the decline of the country in the 1970s before praising Margaret Thatcher for restoring some “pride in nation”. “He’s a fairly solid Tory who in many ways is on the left of the party,” the friend says. “It’s a kind of provincial conservative mentality.” Or as Dowden himself put it at the Conservative Spring Conference last year: “For me, the privet hedges of suburbia are the privet hedges of a free people. And I will make it my mission as chairman to defend those values and those freedoms.”

His colleagues in parliament describe him as “cultured”. You might meet Dowden visiting stately homes, or clasping a copy of England’s Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins. He would watch the Last Night of the Proms with his gran. But this appreciation for culture was, in his words, “learned, not inherited”. Dowden has always defined himself in relation to institutions. That helps to explain his vociferous response when he thinks they are under threat. 

The other defining institution in his life is the Conservative Party. Aged 13 he put a Tory poster in his bedroom window during the 1992 election campaign. He sees himself in Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham. “I grew up in the Conservative Party,” he told party conference in 2021.

By that time, Dowden had made the transition from liberal Cameroon to “thuggish censor” as one commentator put it. He was labelled a “culture warrior”. When critics deploy that phrase, they are usually making an accusation of insincerity – that cultural divisions are being stoked to solidify a party’s support and distract from its failings. The possibility that the accused is sincere is rarely entertained by his detractors.

But Dowden takes woke personally. “It’s apparently completely irrelevant to them [who] my parents” were, he fumed in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC last February. He said that “aggressive” woke campaigning “saddens” him. Accusations that white men inherently have privilege struck him as an attack on his identity. He has “innate concerns” about the removal of historical statues deemed immoral. Instead, he argued to “retain and explain” controversial exhibitions in museums. “If you’d have said ten years ago ‘retain and explain’ about a Turner exhibition or whatever,” a former aide notes, “people would say you’re being very left wing.”

Rishi Sunak is often mistaken for being more liberal than he is, a trait shared by his deputy. Even Dowden’s mentor David Cameron recently defended the scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. For his critics, there’s a prospect scarier than Oliver Dowden the culture warrior: that he’s being sincere.

This article was originally published on 6 June 2023. It has been repromoted as this week (1 August) Deputy PM Oliver Dowden will stand in for Rishi Sunak as the PM jets off on his first holiday in four years.

[See also: Could Rishi Sunak be the Tories’ new Pitt the Younger?]

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