Oliver Dowden compares Rayner and Starmer to Holly and Phil
Oliver Dowden (Olive to his friends and colleagues) is a surprising character to attract visceral hatred, but nevertheless the knives are still out for him.
A bookish, quiet sort of chap who is quite affable and sort of operates under the radar, he is never bothering the lists of potential leaders but is seen as a diligent, capable and hardworking minister.
Last week, sitting in Portcullis House (PCH) on the Parliamentary estate, I had a surprising conversation – not for its content but who was saying it.
With the party teetering on the edge of civil war over Boris Johnson being referred to the police, a senior Tory backbencher came up for a chat.
“It’s really been a bad month for us. The Prime Minister has got to get a grip on things again. It’s all slipping.”
He went on: “I’m afraid to say that appointing Olive (Oliver Dowden) was a terrible mistake and he’ going to have to rethink it.”
This was not from a Brexiteer on the right of the party or an ally of Boris Johnson, it was from a former cabinet minister who probably still is pro-EU and detests Johnson.
The veteran MP continued: “The problem is that Olive is a technocrat, he’s not a politician. He doesn’t know how to fight political fights.
“In fact, there are too few actual politicians in Rishi’s cabinet. He should have made Penny [Mordaunt] Deputy PM, she is one of the few actual politicians in there.”
That’s the polite criticism.
An ally of Boris Johnson’s was much more to the point: “Dowden is an absolute snake. He needs to go.”
But why has Dowden become the lightning rod for criticism of the Sunak government?
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The answer, at least on the right of the party, is that Dowden has been Sunak’s assassin in chief.
The beginning of the end of the Johnson government was when Dowden resigned on June 24 last year as chairman after two humiliating by-election results, criticising the then Prime Minister on his way out.
That in turn led to a flurry of texts to Sunak’s special advisor Nerissa Chesterfield asking if the then Chancellor would resign too in a bid to get Johnson out.
The answer came back “no” but a few weeks later Sunak followed his friend out of the Johnson government and it duly collapsed.
Allies of Mr Johnson believe that the plot was always to take him out in stages. Now, though, Dowden is at the heart of another controversy relating to Mr Johnson.
Last week Downing Street denied that he or any minister signed off the Cabinet Office decision to report the former Prime Minister to the police over Partygate for a second time.
It turns out that this was not true and while the signature came from a junior minister Will Quince nobody believes it could have happened without Dowden’s – or actually Sunak’s – say so.
The move has looked vindictive and based on dodgy claims to say the least and now there are demands for a proper investigation.
When Dominic Raab was forced to resign over less than convincing claims that he was guilty of bullying on on April 21, Dowden was the obvious candidate to be Deputy Prime Minister.
His lack of big personality traits meant that he would not threaten to be an alternative leader, but as a former special advisor he knows the civil service machine inside out and can in theory get stuff done from his position running the Cabine Office.
More importantly, he was elected the same day as Sunak in 2015 and the two are very close friends. Dowden is regularly described as Sunak’s closest friend and ally.
As a former cabinet minister and Johnson ally on the right of the party put it to Express.co.uk last week: “Dowden is a classic example of what you get when you over promote your friends. Useless.
“We had to put up with his inability for a long time when he was [Boris Johnson’s] culture secretary along with other hopeless friends of Sunak like [Immigration Minister Robert] Jenrick.”
The problem now is that Dowden appears to have little support on either side of the party and he has become the face of his Prime Minister’s clumsy attempts to deal with a civil war.
After just six weeks in the job it feels unlikely that Sunak would ditch his friend so quickly.
But there is no doubt now that the pressure to do so will only increase and may become inevitable, especially if Dowden is proven to have had a hand in the latest attempt to assassinate Boris.
Somebody has to take the blame and, whoever is in Downing Street, that somebody is rarely the Prime Minister.
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