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15 November 2023

Murder, she wrote

Nadine Dorries has been ridiculed for alleging that a treacherous “movement” controls the Tory party. But are her worst suspicions being confirmed?

By Will Lloyd

Nadine Dorries was closing a window inside the library of the Covent Garden Hotel in central London. The enormous, chintzy fireplace in the panelled room was too expensive to be touched by actual flames. So it was nippy and Dorries, dressed in an imperial navy jumpsuit with curling ornamental shoulder pads, was doing something about it. If she had looser sleeves, she would have rolled them up. At the same moment, she told me about the time Boris Johnson painted her.

“He loves the arts,” Dorries writes of her old boss in The Plot: The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson, “and loves to paint and draw. Carrie proudly showed me a painting once where I was one of his subjects.” This is one of several hundred details in her new book that will make startled readers wonder what on earth was going on between Johnson and the former secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport. I asked her if she had to sit for Johnson’s oils.

Dorries muttered a joke about the painting as she wrenched the heavy window downwards. “No, I didn’t, no.” She took a seat, laughing, and swept up a steaming mug of peppermint tea. “I didn’t know [about the painting] until Carrie showed me.”

Where had that painting gone? Was it hanging in Dorries’ Cotswold home? “It’s been gifted to someone, but I can’t say who. It wasn’t just me. It was like, his ideal cabinet.” I began listing politicians who might have made the cut: Nadine Dorries… Winston Churchill? “I can’t possibly say but you could be right,” she said, half-winking.

[See also: The desperate return of the Cameroons]

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Dorries is the last ride-or-die Johnsonite with a big media profile. The lonely high priestess in the crumbling temple, abandoned by its congregants, slowly chanting sorrowful hymns to a God that failed. The Plot is her ferocious, score-settling assault on Johnson’s enemies, a hagiographic portrayal of a political Gulliver tied down and made helpless by unimaginative pygmies, as well as a ticklish piece of detective work that sifts through the blackest Westminster gossip.

It reads briskly, as you would expect from an author who has sold over 2.5 million novels since 2014. There are no footnotes, nor an index. Dorries told me that half the book was vaporised because of legal concerns; publication ended up being delayed by six weeks as a platoon of barristers picked over its claims. Even so, The Plot throws bombs in several directions at once. Michael Gove, for instance, is described as “a two-bit comedy actor. A smiling assassin. But most of all, a fake.” Even more surprisingly, we learn that Iain Duncan Smith “was probably really quite good-looking in his day”.

Within an hour of appearing on Amazon – and much to Dorries’ horror – The Plot was strafed by single-star reviews. The book, which details a 25-year plot by a small cabal of men Dorries calls “the movement” to control the Conservative Party by foul means, has been praised by the Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman, the Labour peer Sharmi Chakraborty and the conspiracy theorist David Icke. One broadsheet reviewer said that anybody who enjoyed it ought to be sectioned.

Well, I suppose I ought to find a straitjacket. Returning to The Plot for a second time before interviewing Dorries, I realised that it did not really matter if this immensely entertaining book was true or not. It was pure Dada: the sort of surreal document that only appears when a tired regime is fading away, like the gas released by a dead body. It also proved that, embarrassingly for the lobby, she had managed to outmanoeuvre the nation’s political press corps. Only Dorries has landed public-facing interviews with Johnson, who she always calls “Boris”, since he left Downing Street last July. There are seven interviews in The Plot alone, in addition to her TalkTV exclusive. Her Johnson is affable and dreamy, a massively overgrown schoolboy, always furtively liberating cheese from the family fridge. He quotes William Wordsworth and is never mean about anyone. Did he read The Plot before it was published?

“No, I wouldn’t let him,” said Dorries, though she did agree with him on a pre-publication reader. (Dorries wouldn’t tell me who this was.) “I knew there were things in there that he wouldn’t like, and this person was objective and said, ‘Well, he isn’t gonna like that. And you’re probably going to fall out.’” Dorries looked momentarily agonised. “But you know, you’re both really good friends. And you love each other and you’ll make up afterwards. You might fall out but it will be fine.” She said Carrie Johnson saw more of The Plot than her husband did.

The word “love” is a reminder that entire cathedrals of innuendo have been erected from the Johnson-Dorries relationship. There is a photo of Dorries, giving Johnson a deep, boundless stare at PMQs in February 2022, that suggested… what, exactly? I asked her how they first met. She said Johnson was the only Tory MP who bothered to say anything nice to her when she entered the Commons in 2005, an intimidating occasion that she talks about in a kind of horrified trance.

[See also: GB News isn’t a news channel – it’s Tory TV]

Then Johnson bolstered Dorries before her second speech in the chamber: “I was really scared. And he went, ‘Give no quarter, stand up: you speak like you believe every word. And if you don’t believe every word, don’t do it.’” She recalls what David Cameron was like during the same era: blasé, careless, arrogant. She thought, “You’re supposed to be well-bred. You’re supposed to have gone to a public school, you’re supposed to be schooled in manners.” But Johnson was always decorous. Unlike Cameron, he fit Dorries’ romantic conception of what an English gentleman ought to be. He was posh; he was nice.

A few days after we met, David Cameron returned to the cabinet as Foreign Secretary. I WhatsApped Dorries to ask what she thought. “Pro-China, pro-Remain back in the door!” But how did it fit with the ambitions of the movement? “He [Cameron] was always the project, until he sacked Michael Gove. I think it’s desperation, Peter Mandelson-Gordon Brown style.” Thirteen years of Tory rule were ending the way they started, with the highest offices of state doubling as a ghetto for public school boys.

Illustration by André Carrilho

The Spectator columnist Charles Moore once said that the only thing you could rely on Boris Johnson for was letting you down in the end. Does Dorries worry about that? “The thing is, even if he did let me die” – she corrected herself – “down, that’s not something I would ever say. My loyalty to Boris is based on why I admire him as an individual.” What were those qualities? In The Plot, Dorries writes that: “Boris doesn’t do game playing. He doesn’t really do parties. He really isn’t very good at small talk. He detests gossip.” He was not like other politicians.

I mentioned the PMQs photo. The whole “love” thing. “When I say we love each other, I mean, as friends! I get sick to death of this ‘Oh, are you in love with Boris?’” She sounded pissed off. I worried Dorries might open the window again and hurl me out of it. “If anything happened to Boris tomorrow would I be absolutely gutted? Yes, of course I would. But I would be equally gutted if anything happened to Carrie. I love them both as a couple. I feel very protective towards them.”

Johnson had phoned her the night before. Dorries was on a train to Manchester to appear on the Today programme, and the Times was publishing “explosive claims” found in The Plot. Johnson, flustered, asked Dorries: “What have you said about me in the book? What have you quoted me?” She found it “quite funny. I said: ‘Calm down, calm down.’” I suspect that she enjoyed mothering Johnson through the drama. In fact, I suspect that she just loves The Drama full stop.

Life has continually upended Nadine Dorries’ expectations. She was born “dirt-poor” and “hungry” in Anfield, Liverpool, in 1957. Her family “didn’t have two pennies to rub together”. They lived in a two-up, two-down terraced house, on a “community street where everyone was my auntie”. Dorries said the people she grew up with would be “gobsmacked to see the way some people behave in Westminster”. If you had told her 15-year-old self that she would eventually end up in a Conservative cabinet, or hosting a television chat show, or writing bestselling novels, that Nadine, she says today, “would have said ‘Behave’”.

[Listen now: Is Britain really great? With Armando Iannucci]

A teacher at her “Liverpool sink school”, Mr Baker, told her she had the talent to be a writer. She loved Shakespeare, and read John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, a novel sequence about the perils of being “new money” inside Britain’s indestructible class system. Later, her mother-in-law gave her a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. She read it four times. When I discussed writing with Dorries, her pleasure in the process – early mornings with her pages, pulling her car to the side of the road to scribble down a scene or a new plot point – was joyously apparent. She called it “cathartic”. Her only regret is that she did not start writing properly 30 years ago.

Instead, she became a nurse in 1975. Later she started and then sold her own childcare business. Dorries said she believed in team work and loyalty. “I think it’s a Liverpool thing… Once you nail your colours to the mast, that’s it.” From the off, she found parliament bewildering. There was no teamwork, no sense that her fellow MPs were even colleagues. “I realised I was one of 650 businesses, operating in isolation. And I found it very overwhelming. I remember, actually, on about the fourth day, just bursting into tears, thinking, ‘What have I done? Why have I come to this place?’” Her communal Liverpudlian notions were dissolving in an acid bath of London political cynicism. Dorries might have been du Maurier’s nameless and naive heroine, painfully sloping around Manderley, pursued by spiteful ghosts.

Like Rebecca’s Cornish estate, The Plot’s Westminster is a gothic nightmare. Dorries told me that she has never encouraged another woman to become an MP, nor would she want any of her three daughters “in that environment”. The Conservative Party, she said, is “male-dominated” while sexual harassment in Westminster continues to get worse. Sex aside, Dorries’ book comes billed as a real-life political thriller, and an opportunity for the media to indulge its favourite pastime – gossip. But while it’s true that The Plot is a gossipy book, it becomes more interesting when viewed as an exorcism.

Dorries encountered many demons throughout her 17 years in parliament. She made few real friends in politics, and was often caricatured by journalists as, in her words, a “harsh, bitter, right-wing, crazy” northern woman, always barging her way towards the front lines of the culture wars. Yet Dorries had a (rare) reputation in Westminster for being an excellent, supportive boss. She is good company: warm, candid, funny; secure in herself. She is an enthusiast. Dorries often began sentences with the words “Oh my God”. She described many situations as “overwhelming”. Her highest word of praise was “love”. She didn’t appear to suffer from the neuroses that squirm inside many politicians. Perhaps she had banished them with The Plot.

Nadine Dorries and Boris Johnson in Birmingham, May 2022. Photo by Oli Scarff – WPA Pool / Getty Images

During the year she spent writing the book, Dorries was repeatedly accused of abandoning her constituency work in Mid-Bedfordshire. She saw it differently; exposing the movement was more important than anything else. The costs were high: “I gave up a lot to write this book.” She told me she passed on four offers of a cabinet role – one from Sunak, three from Liz Truss – in order to write. She claims her place in the Lords was blocked by Dougie Smith, a Conservative Party fixer who plays a sinister role in The Plot.

What Dorries called the “managed decline” of the Tory party seemed to distress her more than losing out on the Lords. She witheringly compared Rishi Sunak’s tiny plans to ban things with the big-picture vision of Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda. Dorries saw the return of the Times columnist Danny Finkelstein to the centre of Tory politics – she said he was helping to prep Sunak for Prime Minister’s Questions – as a terrible sign. She thinks the party, now back in the hands of Conservative Remainers, is heading for a 1993 Canadian-style Conservative wipeout at the next election.

Who will the next Tory leader be? Dorries thinks “the movement” will install “rude” Kemi Badenoch, “because these guys always get their own way”. Even if Suella Braverman somehow recovered from being sacked as home secretary to beat her, “they will make sure she’s out pretty quick. Nothing happens by accident for these people.” And Labour? Dorries predicted that Sue Gray, Keir Starmer’s new chief of staff, would be more trouble than she was worth. There was “something decidedly odd going on there”. She thought Starmer might have been played by Gray, who Dorries claimed is close to Michael Gove. When “things start being leaked to the media, and he [Starmer] doesn’t know how they got there, and he starts getting confused about what’s happening around him, then he possibly knows where to look”.

I left her in the library with her peppermint tea and her ominous warnings. She had a column for the Daily Mail to write, and a scathing tweet about Prospect editor Alan Rusbridger, who was saying patronising things about her, to send. More Drama. In Nadine Dorries’ world, the plot was always getting thicker.

[See also: Reshuffle special: (Lord) Cameron returns]

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures