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16 September 2021

The appointment of Nadine Dorries sums up Boris Johnson’s reshuffle – but not for the reason you think

The new Culture Secretary is a committed social conservative – but more importantly, she’s a longtime Johnson ally.

By Stephen Bush

Nadine Dorries has been brought into the cabinet for the first time, being promoted to the role of Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in a move that has provoked uproar in the worlds of culture, media and sport. Dorries was an opponent of same-sex marriage, and has been one of parliament’s more committed supporters of proposals to strip back abortion services. She has decried “left-wing snowflakes” for “killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and suppressing free speech”.

The cries of horror aren’t just confined to the cultural, media and sporting realms – or indeed to the opposition benches. One Conservative MP described the move to me as “the one sour note” in the reshuffle, another as “the single solitary mistake in an otherwise perfect day”.

But Dorries’s appointment isn’t a sour note, or at odds with the rest of the reshuffle: it sums up, rather than defies, the general pattern of the government’s reorganisation. In many ways, Dorries is the face of the reshuffle. 

She was an early adopter as far as Boris Johnson is concerned, backing him first during his short-lived 2016 leadership bid, then early in his 2019 leadership bid, and never faltering from his cause. In that respect, she is much of a muchness with the other big winners of this reshuffle so far: Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Anne-Marie Trevelyan. Neither Truss nor Trevelyan could be described as afraid to participate in the UK’s culture wars either. With Oliver Dowden, another committed culture warrior, replacing Amanda Milling as party chair, the question of which way Johnson’s government wants to approach these issues has been decisively settled.

Although the three sacked cabinet ministers (Gavin Williamson, Robert Buckland and Robert Jenrick) backed Johnson in 2019, they were all comparatively late to the party. Williamson had been a crucial organisational cog in Theresa May’s rise to the premiership, while Buckland and Jenrick were both “May 2016, Johnson 2019” supporters. Buckland, a committed Remainer, was the highest profile representative of the crucial swing demographic in the 2019 Tory leadership election: MPs who weren’t committed allies of Johnson (some of them didn’t even much like him) but who saw him as their last and best hope of remaining in office after the disastrous local and European elections in 2019. 

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In addition, Johnson has moved Michael Gove from his role at the Cabinet Office, where he was able to roam freely across much of Whitehall and the government’s policy agenda, to a more contained brief at housing and local government. One senior source described the move as “a perfect marriage”: Johnson wanted Gove out of the Cabinet Office, where he had his finger in too many pies as far as some in Downing Street were concerned, while Gove has things he wants to accomplish in the local government brief.  

Taken together, however, they reveal the real story of this reshuffle: one in which Johnson acted decisively to ensure the big vote-winning and administration-shaping governments are occupied by ministers who are seen as proven “deliverers” by Downing Street and as longtime allies of the Prime Minister, whether that is Truss at the Foreign Office, Zahawi at Education, and now Dorries at Culture. This is a government that is now set up to deliver its Prime Minister’s priorities: and one of those priorities is repeated and sustained intervention in the UK’s culture wars. 

[See also: Liz Truss named Foreign Secretary as Boris Johnson demotes Raab]

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