Why has Nadine Dorries been made culture secretary?
How have people reacted to her appointment?
With a sharp intake of breath so loud, “you may well have heard it from the comfort of your constituencies”, says Harry de Quetteville in The Telegraph. The denizens of Whitehall “stretched their eyes” in disbelief and “gnashed their teeth in envy”. Culture secretary? The MP for Mid Bedfordshire, 64, best known as reality-television gourmand of such delicacies as “camel’s toe and ostrich anus”? Whose debut book was described by the Telegraph’s reviewer as “the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years”? Yes, the woman some MPs (many on her own side) unkindly call “Mad Nad” has been ushered into government.
How has she done it?
I got a clue from my “maddening” experience interviewing her, says Camilla Long in The Sunday Times. What struck me was her ability to wind people up. She would say something “and then unsay it”; she would present “bizarre claims” as fact. She would appear vague, then angry, then “filled with victimhood”, before turning aggressively on you once again. She once told a reporter she would “nail your balls to the floor … using your own front teeth”. She was “bullying, irresponsible, bizarre, partisan, spiteful, aggressive”, happy to dismiss David Cameron and George Osborne as “arrogant posh boys” but cheer on Boris Johnson. (She cried when Michael Gove “stabbed him in the front”.)
So she shouldn’t have got the job?
“I don’t hate the idea of a new-broom culture secretary as much as I thought I would,” says Long. I’m driven up the wall by people in the arts who aggressively oppose change, like those at Historic England who tried to protect that “mouldy brutalist water butt” in Teesside, described by the local mayor as a “rotting coal bunker”, which Dorries has since had demolished. These are the people who make culture worse, not Dorries. And you couldn’t invent a politician more capable of driving the BBC bonkers, “which I assume is why Boris has chosen her”. I cannot wait for the “weapons-grade handbagging” and general dirty scrapping as she imposes his one cultural policy: Britishness. “There will be no survivors.”
What do MPs say?
“We’re going to have fun,” one Tory MP told the BBC. Another admitted there “was a bit of surprise that she would get such a big job”, while yet another said: “She’s feisty. I’m sure she’ll be up for the fight.” According to her first boss in politics, former shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin, “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.”
Is she qualified for the job?
From Johnson’s point of view, absolutely. Dorries sees the BBC as favouring views that are “strident, very left wing, often hypocritical and frequently patronising”, and the licence fee as “more in keeping in a Soviet-style country”. She was an early arrival on the front lines of the culture war. “Left wing snowflakes are killing comedy”, she tweeted back in 2017, “tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and suppressing free speech”.
What do her critics say?
That she is no friend of the arts, pointing out that she, for example, opposed gay marriage (she has since described this as her “biggest regret”). In fact, says Sarah Ditum in UnHerd, there has never been a secretary of state with such a “clear affinity for their brief”. She doesn’t just watch TV, she’s a primetime star. She doesn’t just like books, she writes them – bestselling supernatural bonkbusters, no less. And she isn’t just a passive observer of the digital world (also under her purview), she was one of the first MPs to be active online – she started blogging in the Noughties, back when Cameron was still making “woeful ‘tweet’/‘twat’ puns”.
Is she Tory born and bred?
Far from it – her father was a bus driver and she grew up dirt poor in 1960s Liverpool. “We used to hide from the rent man, as we couldn’t pay him,” she once told The Guardian. “Some days there would be no food.” She has come a long way, moving to the Cotswolds after marrying a mining engineer (they’re now divorced) and setting up a successful childcare firm. She originally thought about joining Labour but resented Tony Blair’s snootiness about Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme, which let council tenants buy the homes they lived in. Her mum used it and it transformed the estate they lived on. Neighbours suddenly had “handmade fences”, she remembers, and front doors were “lovingly painted different colours. People were fighting to express their individualism, because suddenly they weren’t part of this great mass. Now they were homeowners and they had something to shout about.”
How does she get on with the other Tories?
Along with accusing Cameron and Osborne of not knowing “the price of a pint of milk”, Dorries has made plain speaking something of a trademark. She has called fellow MP Andrew Mitchell “a bastard” and John Major a “traitor”. She described anti-Brexit radio host James O’Brien as a “public school f***wit” (although she sent two of her three daughters to his alma mater, Ampleforth). Voters love it, but her frank style has made her a lifelong target for snobs as well.
What do the snobs say?
On the news of her promotion, Matthew Anderson, the European culture editor for The New York Times, thank you very much, tweeted: “Germany’s culture minister is a trained art historian; France’s wrote a book on Verdi. The new UK culture secretary … ate ostrich anus on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.” I hate to break it to Mr Anderson, says Gareth Roberts in Spiked, but there is nothing “wrong or suspicious” about having fun. Eating an ostrich’s anus on TV is as much a part of “culture” as widely unread books on Verdi. (The volume in question, Verdi amoureux, has just 12 reviews on Amazon, the top one describing it as a “livre à jeter à la poubelle”.)
Is Johnson right to have hired her?
“I think it’s a trap,” says Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson, “for the bien-pensant liberals who will only end up sounding snobbish and elitist if they immediately criticise her.” Her appointment, he adds, has “great symbolic value for the whole Johnson project”. It’s a particular pickle for Labour, currently run by an Islington QC. How can they take on a former nurse who grew up so poor she had to borrow shoes from a friend to go to school? Too bad for the left, says Roberts, that someone with such “normally celebrated identity factors” – working class, northern, female – has the wrong opinions. When you’re not saying the right thing, you’re just another “uncouth, déclassé pleb”.
“I’m 5ft 3in and need every inch of my Louboutin heels to look my male colleagues in the eye.” – Nadine Dorries