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24 June 2022

Oliver Dowden has cancelled himself

The disgruntled ex-culture secretary has had enough of the culture war he started.

By Zoë Grünewald

Like an old man yelling at the clouds, the now ex-chairman of the Conservative Party, Oliver Dowden, has managed to pick a fight with an exhausting number of inanimate objects, concepts and organisations.

In his time as culture secretary, he denounced the National Trust, the BBC, the cricket, pronouns, young people, social media, schools, universities and museums, to name just a few. Indeed, Dowden has long been warrior-in-chief of the government’s divisive culture battle. Stoking divisions for electoral gain has fast become the Tories’ bread and butter – which, as culture secretary, presumably made Dowden their head baker.

Back in February, Dowden told the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing US think tank, that there was a “painful woke psychodrama” sweeping the West, and denounced “wokeism”. “A dangerous form of decadence,” he said, before slinking off to check that every government building was flying the Union Jack that day.

When Dowden wasn’t rolling his eyes at people respecting each other’s feelings, he did dabble in more coherent policymaking, such as the ambitious online harms proposals and plans to reinvigorate the UK’s broadcast ecology. But even these sensical policies couldn’t be free of Dowden’s disdain for cancel culture and the left. “Crucially,” online harm law will not be a “woke charter”, Dowden told the Daily Mail last year. Oh, thank god for that.

In fairness to Dowden, there is one thing he loves and that’s the Queen. In 2020, Dowden defended the Windsor’s honour and wrote to Netflix, asking them to put accuracy warnings on episodes of The Crown. Netflix, in turn, ignored him. Dowden, dissatisfied with this, decided to show Netflix just who’s in charge by launching a plan to regulate the content of video-on-demand services. In a BBC interview last April, Dowden famously appeared in front of a large portrait of Her Majesty, with no explanation or relevance. In a number of Dowden’s Department for Culture consultations and policy papers, his ministerial foreword would be accompanied by him standing in front of a portrait of the Queen. In this particular one, her head seems to have been chopped off.

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After a reshuffle in 2021, Dowden was made chair of the Conservative Party – a role that placed him closer to the grassroots of electoral politics. After yesterday’s by-election defeat for the Tories, Dowden did some soul-searching and suddenly declared he could no longer support Boris Johnson, resigning from his position as chairman (or co-chairman, as No 10 comms have pointedly sought to remind us) this morning. In his resignation letter, he explains simply that Tory supporters are “distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings”. Hmm… has Dowden had a change of heart? Is it possible that this whole thing has gone a little too far, and he’s starting to worry about the impact of his party’s divisive rhetoric on the country?

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Or perhaps the ambitious Dowden no longer wants to back a lame horse. Maybe all the things he seemed to stand for actually don’t mean a great deal if they no longer win elections. Dowden’s resignation reflects the cynicism of the Conservative Party – it will say anything if it leads the party to victory, and U-turn without shame or remorse when the tactic no longer works.

Dowden’s attempt to distance himself from Johnson has merely elicited reminders from the public that he has the blood of the culture wars on his hands. His shameless resignation has highlighted the real purpose of the discourse he engaged in again and again – not ideology, but electoral success. And when it no longer served him, Dowden plunged a knife into his leader’s back and waved a white flag. Unfortunately, no one’s buying it.

Poor Dowden – he cancelled himself.

[See also: Andrew Marr: Who in the cabinet has the courage to challenge Boris Johnson?]