Nadine Dorries has a dry humour, and it is surely no accident that the title she has chosen for her forthcoming, 16th novel is A Wicked Woman. Set in 19th-century Lancashire it will open a family saga, The Bellfont Legacy, that will run to three books, possibly six.
She will approach this opus while being Secretary of State, with responsibility for the diverse sectors of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Clearly, Dorries, who likes to begin writing at 6am, bashing out thousands of words before the start of the working day, is unworried by the second jobs scandal engulfing Westminster.
The Culture Secretary is full of contradictions. She is best-known for going on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here in 2012, supposedly to improve public trust in MPs – before instead being voted off by viewers in the first week. Now, she is preparing the new online harms bill while operating a Twitter account on which her wide vocabulary in abusive language ranges from “bottom feeding scum” to “fuck wit”.
Her appointment as Secretary of State prompted immediate concerns for the BBC, which she has described as “very left wing, often hypocritical and frequently patronising”. Yet last week, in her first television interview as Culture Secretary, she told the BBC’s Katie Razzall that it is “a fantastic global institution” and the “best of British”.
Appearing before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee on 23 November, she was studiously defensive. She denied last month’s Sunday Times report that she had said privately that “Nick Robinson has cost the BBC a lot of money” after the Today presenter told the Prime Minister to “stop talking” during an interview. “It was attributed to me, but nobody can actually say I said it,” she told MPs.
Can she be trusted? “She is being more diplomatic and circumspect because that’s what secretaries of state do,” said Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster. “I still worry about the repercussions of her appointment for the BBC, both in terms of the future funding and in terms of the institution that it becomes.”
Watching her performance at the DCMS Committee, a Telegraph writer claimed to see through her new placid demeanour. “Ms Dorries isn’t here to manage the status quo,” he wrote. “She’s here to shake things up.”
But during negotiations with the BBC, Dorries has not resembled the frenzied street fighter who once tweeted to a Sunday Mirror journalist: “I will nail your balls to the floor… using your own front teeth.” One source said: “She’s no fool. She’s sharper and more sophisticated than the caricatures by some margin. She knows what she’s doing.”
Dorries is at the apex of her political career, and is said to have “taken the time to be a bit more reflective”. She told MPs that she had not decided on whether to privatise Channel 4 because she wants to study the 60,000 submissions to the government’s consultation. That’s not the airhead that comedian Mark Thomas imagined when he said she was “someone who has written more books than they have read”.
According to her editor, Rosie de Courcy of publisher Head of Zeus, Dorries’s writing appeals to women over 40 and the negative commentary “has been almost exclusively from men who clearly wouldn’t be reading the books but want to have a dig at her”. The Telegraph reviewer Christopher Howse deemed her 2014 debut, The Four Streets, “the worst novel I’ve read in ten years”.
Dorries, 64, has according to her publisher sold 2.5 million books, which mostly draw on her experiences of growing up poor on Liverpool’s Breck Road and later working as a nurse. De Courcy compares her to Catherine Cookson, and praises her fiction’s working-class “authenticity” and humour. She worried that readers would be confused by the author’s public persona “[but] we came to the conclusion that they weren’t really connecting Nadine the politician with Nadine the novelist”.
In public life, Dorries rails against privileged males and their “misogyny”. She reminded the committee that “men [are] always dominating” at book awards, and she worried that gender-neutral categories at the Brits might adversely affect female artists. Yet her feminist activism is also contradictory. A committed Christian, she has campaigned hard to limit rights to abortion. She is the mother of three daughters and when MPs asked her what she meant by the phrase “snowflake lefty”, she replied wryly: “Probably my kids.”
Proud of her roots as a “council house Scouser”, she is a class warrior too. Shortly after becoming Culture Secretary, she spoke to the Chopper’s Politics podcast and complained that her critics in the arts were people “who found themselves where they were through a privileged background, through nepotism”. She said the BBC should recruit from “all backgrounds, not just people whose mum and dad worked there”.
Aside from her ignorance of the BBC’s high ranking on the Social Mobility Employer Index, the comments stank of hypocrisy because Dorries employed two of her daughters in her Westminster office and sent them to Ampleforth College, the elite private school attended by LBC presenter James O’Brien, one of her favourite “posh boy” targets on Twitter.
She previously attacked David Cameron and George Osborne as “arrogant posh boys”, but adores the Old Etonian Boris Johnson, her political patron.
When Dorries lost the party whip by appearing on I’m a Celebrity, Johnson backed her, saying: “I’m sure she’s got all the skills necessary to survive in the jungle.” When he in turn was under fire from an unnamed MP quoted by Laura Kuenssberg this month, Dorries used Twitter to scald the BBC journalist. Even as Culture Secretary, she cannot keep her fingers off social media.
The Prime Minister loves having a working-class firebrand in a position to bait the liberal arts elite. But culture secretaries have notoriously short tenures and Johnson’s future is in doubt.
The prolific saga writer must know she is on borrowed time to make her mark before, as in the jungle, she’s out of here. Until then, the BBC should be afraid.