Boris Johnson likes to disconcert his critics by doing things which fall outside their conception of what it would be fitting for him to do.
His appointment of Nadine Dorries as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is a signal example of this.
In all the reams of speculation about how he would reshuffle his Cabinet, nobody seems to have foreseen her promotion.
As David Gauke remarked earlier this week on ConHome,
“When Nadine entered Parliament as part of the 2005 intake (of which I was also part), it was not obvious that she would one day join the Cabinet.”
Other Conservatives treated her more rudely. Two Tories who have recently published their diaries, Sasha Swire and Alan Duncan, refer to her by her nickname, “Mad Nad”.
Like Johnson himself, she was until recently looked on with condescension as a vulgar and unserious person who had no idea how to behave. Dorries refused to show the respect for the Cameron-Osborne leadership which anyone intent on promotion was expected to show.
So when asked in April 2012 by the BBC whether David Cameron and George Osborne are “still, in your opinion, two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”, Dorries replied,
“not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime.”
When Theresa May succeeded Cameron as Prime Minister, and made Philip Hammond Chancellor, Dorries was no more supportive of them.
And yet if the world had been paying attention, it would have seen that if and when Johnson became leader, her fortunes would in all likelihood be transformed, for she has long been one of his most loyal supporters.
In September 2012 she recalled on ConHome (for this site took her seriously and carried a considerable number of pieces by her) the origins of her support for Johnson:
“I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, the first time I heard it suggested that Boris might one day be Prime Minister.
It was in Bournemouth, on the second evening of conference in 2004. I was in the company of a shadow secretary of state and a senior member of CCHQ, and we were sat in the window seat of a restaurant. It was evening, dark and pouring with rain.
The restaurant was bustling, packed with conference goers and smelt of wet wool, pensioners and politicians.
We were in a slight hurry as I had to get the shadow minister to a speech he was due to deliver at a conference fringe – but after a full day which had begun at 6am – we were starving and desperate for food. My job was to place the order quickly and as I sat back down into my seat, the conversation turned to the last tense conference we three had been at together the previous year, which had set the scene for the downfall of Iain Duncan Smith.
The conversation wandered onto the longevity of Michael Howard’s tenure in the role of leader, which I was informed with an authoritative voice, would be short.
My question was, ‘who could possibly replace him?’ The swift reply, which indicated that it wasn’t a spur of the moment revelation and perhaps something already pre-determined, shot straight back in one word ‘Boris’.
I laughed. Oh… how I laughed. I replied with one word, high on exaggeration, ‘Boris’? Followed by ‘are you serious’? They were, deadly…
It only took weeks of viewing Boris through the prism of potential leadership in order to shift my thoughts to exactly the same place as theirs.”
And here is Dorries at the most recent party conference, asked by Christopher Hope during the recording of Chopper’s Politics podcast who her mentor has been:
“It’s always been Boris… Someone like Boris who does it a bit differently gives you the confidence to be yourself in politics.”
When Hope asked why her appointment as Culture Secretary had been criticised by so many in the arts, she replied:
“Oh snobbishness, total pure left-wing snobbery.”
Nadine Bargery was born in 1957 in Breck Road, a deprived district of Liverpool. Her father, a bus driver who died at the age of 42, was an Irish Catholic, her mother an English Protestant.
Money was “very tight” and she left school at the age of 16 to train as a nurse. At the age of 17 she met Paul Dorries, to whom she got married, and with whom she had three daughters.
They spent a year in Zambia, she running a school, he working as a mining engineer. On returning to England, she set up a child care business.
In 2001, she stood as the Conservative candidate in Manchester, at Hazel Grove, then a safe Liberal Democrat seat, after which she spent three years as a special adviser to Oliver Letwin, who this week told ConHome:
“It isn’t often that someone with Nadine’s energy and chutzpah arrives on the political scene. When they do, one can expect all sorts of fireworks. And now she is in charge of a Department that will give her every chance to light up the sky. This is likely to be a spectacle worth watching.”
“I wanted to be an MP so badly it consumed me,” she wrote on ConHome soon after entering the Commons. She would have liked to represent one of the Liverpool seats, but none was remotely winnable for a Conservative, so she became the candidate for Mid Bedfordshire, which she has held since 2005.
In her maiden speech she said:
“I promise to be a voice for the family and to stand up for mothers who wish to stay at home and raise their children but feel voiceless and unworthy in such a career-oriented society, when raising the children of tomorrow’s society is the most worthy job of all.”
Here was an early sign of her social conservatism, perhaps most evident in her strenuous attempts to reduce the age at which women can obtain an abortion from 24 weeks to 20. She also spoke in favour of grammar schools. She and her husband separated in 2007.
In 2012 she came before a wider public by appearing on I’m a Celebrity, to the annoyance of the Conservative Whips, though she had asked for and been granted leave of absence without revealing where she was going.
The Whip was for a time withdrawn, but she remained well able to give as good as she got, as in this dialogue with Andrew Neil in December 2012:
Neil: “Do you think your political career’s effectively over?”
Dorries [amused rather than cowed]: “No, not at all. It might just be beginning.”
In 2016, she wept at St Ermin’s Hotel when Johnson announced to his followers that he was abandoning his leadership bid, and in 2018, after he had resigned from the post of Foreign Secretary, she leapt to his defence when he was under fire for his article about burkas. Early meetings in his new leadership campaign were held in her Commons office.
Her ministerial career began at the age of 62, in July 2019, when Johnson became Prime Minister and made her a junior minister at the Department of Health. The following May he promoted her to Minister of State in the same department.
And just under a month ago he made her Secretary of State at DCMS. This is nowadays a major economic department, with a heavy legislative programme including the Online Safety Bill, crucial measures to enhance Britain’s position as a world leader in data and tech, and significant though as yet unspecified media reforms.
Johnson has cleared out the previous ministerial team, led by Oliver Dowden, which was running this programme, and has put in a new team led by Dorries, with one fewer minister.
As Gauke observes,
“To some extent, she embodies the new Conservative voters – northern, working-class and socially conservative and is a natural culture warrior. It is surely likely that the Prime Minister, in making this appointment, looked forward to her upsetting all the right people. So far, she is doing exactly that.”
On the sports side of her brief, she declared her interest as a passionate supporter of Liverpool Football Club, and has pointed out that her great grandfather, George Bargery, was a founder member of Everton, where he played in goal.
On the literary side, she has herself enjoyed success as an author. In 2014, when the first of her novels came out, Ann Treneman of The Times went to Liverpool and did an interview with Dorries which is of absorbing interest.
The new Culture Secretary is aggressive and friendly, pugnacious and vulnerable, at one and the same time. In Chopper’s Politics podcast at the party conference, she recalled having to borrow shoes to go to school, mentioned with pride the achievements of several people who had been at her school, and said that today they would not have the same opportunities to make their way in the cultural field:
“If you want to do that today you need a double-barrelled name and you need to have gone to a private or a public school or your Mum needs to know someone or your Dad needs to know someone or you need to have a connection with the BBC…
“For me that’s what levelling up is about…it’s about people…who come from a background like mine who want to be the next grand slam champion but can’t afford private tennis lessons.”
She added that the BBC “have a kind of groupthink and their groupthink excludes working-class backgrounds”.
DCMS is responsible for more appointments to public bodies than any other department. It is hard to imagine a Labour Secretary of State could be more determined than Dorries to ensure that working-class applicants have a fair chance of getting those jobs.
Johnson has, in short, put in someone who is profoundly committed to her idea of levelling up, and may also prove rather good at catching her opponents off balance.