Is Nadine Dorries the best we have?
Love or loathe her, she’s never pretended to be anything other than a populist
It is always easy to sneer at a reshuffle, but that does not mean that we should deny ourselves the pleasure of doing so. The departure of Old Poker himself, Gavin Williamson, to spend more time with his tarantula will be largely unmourned; a scurrilous rumour that he was seen in tears on Victoria Street, being comforted by his mother, swiftly gained traction because of its innate plausibility. And despite joshing that Michael Gove should have been appointed Minister of Sound because of his Travolta-esque hijinks in an Aberdeen nightclub, his move into the Housing department is a more significant promotion than it initially appears and confirms Gove as by far the most consequential politician of his generation. But these announcements were outshone by a much more unexpected and left-field (if decidedly right-wing) appointment. Nadine Dorries, bestselling novelist, star of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here, and dedicated Twitter aficionado is now Minister for Culture.
Much of the criticism that Dorries has faced during her political career has arisen from social and intellectual snobbery. During the smoothly patrician days of the Cameron and Osborne era, she was sneered at for being a single mother and former nurse from Liverpool. At a time when Gove — the public school and Oxford-educated Cabinet minister — was regarded as “not quite the thing” for being adopted and for coming from Aberdeen, Dorries stood no chance of coming anywhere near the inner sanctum of influence. She did not help herself by describing Cameron as representing “everything that through my life…I have been suspicious of”, or her infamous jibe at him and Osborne that they were “two arrogant posh boys”. Yet she has an enormous majority in the safe seat of Mid Bedfordshire, and speaks to a large section of working-class Conservative opinion. They, too, are uninterested in the Notting Hill set, gay marriage (which Dorries initially opposed before having a Damascene conversion after speaking to the evangelist Nicky Gumbel) and foreign aid budgets. Instead, they want to see a low tax, socially conservative government that speaks to them, rather than the much-loathed metropolitan elite.
Ministers should be asking why the National Theatre are unable to stage plays that could be enjoyed outside the M25
Dorries, love her or loathe her, has never pretended to be anything other than a populist. Her appearance on I’m a Celebrity was hugely controversial, from both an entertainment perspective — eating kangaroo anus on television is not something that you can imagine her Bedfordshire predecessor Viscount Boyd of Merton doing — and politically. She was censured for appearing on the show without permission, and had the whip suspended for six months; even her constituents were opposed to her having deserted them to feast on baked spider and camel’s toe. Osborne attempted, without success, to have her thrown out of the Conservative party altogether, in which case she would have danced straight into the wide-open embrace of a smirking Nigel Farage. But, with her profile greatly enhanced, she re-entered the fold, and promptly celebrated by a further reinvention. She was no longer Nadine Dorries, MP and reality TV show veteran. Instead, she was Nadine Dorries, novelist.
At this point, I must declare an interest of sorts. My first publisher was the independent outlet Head of Zeus, who were also responsible for midwifing Dorries’ career. I met her once at the company’s headquarters, and found her pleasant, charming and engaged. I can only hope that I didn’t come across as one of the “arrogant posh boys” that she so vocally railed against. Yet I was not asked to review her debut novel The Four Streets. Had I done so, her greeting on future occasions might have been rather frostier. Sarah Ditum lamented in the New Statesman that “After her remarkable flights from fact in her statements on abortion, it’s disappointing to find that Dorries is just not very good at making things up”, and concluded “Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, feck this shite”, while the venerable Christopher Howse wept into his beard in the Daily Telegraph and called it “the worst novel I’ve read in ten years” as he railed against its “vacuous language”.
Ditum and Howse, however, approached the book in the wrong fashion. Both eminent critics dealt with The Four Streets as if it was a work of literature that could be reviewed in the mainstream press. Yet Dorries would be the first to admit that her tale of working-class Fifties Liverpool life, complete with occasional metaphysical flourishes, was not designed to win the Booker Prize, but instead to sell a huge number of copies to people who could not care less about Literature. The strategy has undoubtedly worked. To date, Dorries has published 16 novels and short stories; an impressively prolific output in a mere seven years, combined with her duties in Parliament. And her substantial sales can be ascertained from the substantial entries in the Members’ Interests log, which leave many literary novelists positively green-eyed with envy.
I fear that this particular culture war needs an altogether less feisty champion than Dorries
Her appointment to the DCMS was met with incredulity and shock by many. I found it entirely unsurprising. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, she (and many others) have regarded Boris Johnson as exempt from the “arrogant posh boy” tag that she damned Osborne and Cameron with. She supported him for the leadership from his unsuccessful 2016 bid onwards — who can forget her tears when he pulled out when Gove announced his wrecking-ball candidacy? — and has been the staunchest supporter of this particular man of the people. If we know one thing about our enigmatic Prime Minister, it is that he rewards unquestioning loyalty above all other facets, and so Dorries’ promotion should be seen as payback for her years of fealty to him.
How will she fare as Culture Minister? I am sympathetic to the government’s anti-woke agenda when it comes to culture, but I wish it was being delivered in a thoroughly different manner. Rather than shouting about statues and the dumbing down of pantomime, ministers should instead attempt to ask why Rufus Norris and the National Theatre seem unable to stage plays that might be enjoyed by those outside the M25, or why the subsidised arts in general have unquestioningly adopted left wing shibboleths. Woe betide anyone who dares to put forward an alternative perspective. It is a time for reasoned, balanced debate, conducted both publicly and privately. Instead, we have slogans and social media anger.
I fear that this particular culture war needs an altogether less feisty champion than Dorries. Penny Mordaunt, who apparently was demoted for some perceived slight, would have been a better appointment, as would the author Jesse Norman, the former chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. But we do not have a government consisting of good sense and foresight; instead, it is an administration of short-term advantage and an obsession with the shock and awe tactic. The Culture Secretary brief was no different under Oliver Dowden, and, although I would love to be proved wrong, I would be amazed if Dorries’ appointment changes matters for the better. Still, look on the bright side. At least she won’t be writing any more books for a while.
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