Nad – the cooing culture dove from above

Nadine Dorries shows us she is the pacifist’s Oliver Dowden

“What is a ‘snowflake lefty’?” The Culture select committee was asking questions of its newest Secretary of State, Nadine Dorries. 

There have until now been, broadly, two types of Culture Secretary: Oliver Dowden, and Everyone Else. In the pre-Dowden era the job was largely to be photographed in front of actors and sportspeople, talking vaguely about Our Wonderful Heritage™, a sort of political Prince Charles. Keen holders of the post, like Matt Hancock, would also mention broadband. 

We might have expected Dowden to do the same. He’s a pleasant sort of fellow who would probably rather enjoy being shown around a museum for an afternoon. But he guessed that this was not what the spirit of the age required, and instead set about purging himself of his past association with cuddly centrism by attacking those who, like him, had opposed Brexit. Every week the Sunday Telegraph would breathlessly announce the opening of a fresh front in the full-spectrum culture war he was waging. To those who had met Dowden in earlier days, it was like discovering that your teddy bear had joined the Khmer Rouge and was denouncing you for having cried at the end of E.T.

Dorries on the other hand has never been accused of being easy-going. The assumption when she was appointed was that she would pick up where Dowden had left off. Was he thinking about privatising Channel 4? She would burn it to the ground and put Jon Snow’s head on a spike outside the Tower of London. Did Dowden think that people should be jailed for attacking statues? Dorries would authorise the police to shoot on sight any student carrying a traffic cone towards a plinth.

Where was the lioness of the Conservative frontbench?

So it was with some interest that we watched Labour’s Clive Efford question her about some of her many previously expressed views. “What is a ‘snowflake lefty’?” he asked. 

“Probably my kids,” she shot back cheerfully. 

“Are they from Islington?” Efford asked, taken aback. “What is an Islington lefty?”

“Again, one of my kids,” Dorries laughed, all sweetness and charm. She professed unfamiliarity with the term. “I think I might have used it once, in general terms,” she said. “I’ve certainly never used it as a Secretary of State.”

What about privatising Channel 4, someone else asked. Dorries replied that she hadn’t had time to look at the question in detail, as though that had ever stopped her from commenting on things in the past.

What was going on? Where was the lioness of the Conservative frontbench, the casual mauler of any champagne socialist foolish enough to cross her path? Steve Brine, a Tory, was confused. He offered her an underarm ball, asking why Channel 4 News never interviewed members of the Cabinet. Would she swat it for six? “Cathy Newman has asked me a number of times to appear,” she dead-batted. “I don’t do any news unless I’m absolutely forced to.” It would not have occurred to the Sketch that this veteran of the I’m A Celebrity jungle was publicity-shy 

What about Nick Robinson telling Boris Johnson to “stop talking”? Hadn’t she said this interview had “cost the BBC a lot of money”? She expressed bafflement. “I’ve never criticised Nick Robinson,” she said. “I didn’t hear the interview that I was supposed to have criticised, and I never made the comments. It was attributed to me, but nobody can actually say that I said it.”

The old Dorries would never have let something as trivial as not having heard an interview stop her from commenting on it. Nor would she have shied away from threatening to cut the BBC’s funding to 50p and a bunch of grapes for being mean to her beloved Boris. But this new Dorries was all thoughtfulness and care.

Only John Nicolson of the SNP got close to winding her up, but it’s quite hard to take SNP MPs seriously when they complain about people being rude to political opponents on Twitter, or indeed when they accuse other people of being zealots. It was with some satisfaction that Dorries read back to Nicolson a tweet he’d written calling her “unstable”.

Could we be living in a world where Nadine Dorries is sent into a department after Oliver Dowden to calm things down?

He had more success asking about the appointment of a new chair for Ofcom, which has comically run into the sand. When the government failed to get its preferred candidate through the interview process earlier this year, it reopened applications. Dorries explained this was because they wanted “as wide and as diverse a field as possible of applicants”. They wanted in other words, candidates ranging from “people called Paul Dacre” to “former editors of the Daily Mail”. 

She even defended her permanent secretary, Sarah Healey, who had been the subject of a Dacre drive-by shooting last week for the crime of owning an exercise bike. “There are many male permanent secretaries,” Dorries observed, “who went for their jog each morning, or for their cycle ride, or walked their dog. Nobody had anything to say about that.”

Defending civil servants from the fury of Dacre, saying she needed time to look at the issues, joking about her kids being “snowflakes”. Are we … could we … be living in a world where Nadine Dorries is sent into a department after Oliver Dowden to calm things down? 

Say it ain’t so, Nad. Say it ain’t so.

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