[Lead Image: thePipeLine]
Although it is unlikely to have been at the forefront of his mind as he rearranged the cabinet deckchairs on Wednesday afternoon, the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson [oh all right, the PM’s spokesperson denied that Carrie Johnson had anything to do with the new appointments], the Prime Minister, managed to make two of the key changes of personnel in areas directly relating to archaeology and heritage.
As the sun set over Westminster and several ministerial careers, new bottoms were warming the seats at the Department for Communities, Housing and Local Government and in the small suite of rooms the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, squat in, tucked away out of sight, out of mind, in the comer of 100 Parliament Street. The building mostly occupied by Her Majesties Revenue and Customs.
High on the agenda of the new Housing Communities and Local Government Michael Gove are the “reforms” of the planning system which following the loss of a safe Conservative seat in the Chesham and Amersham byelection are about as popular on the Conservative back benches as Keir Starmer at a meeting of Momentum, while over at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the new Secretary of State Nadine Dorries will be in charge of reforms of the Treasure Act among other heritage related policy matters, if they can ever be bothered to get around to them.
Of the two, Mr Gove’s appointment is the easiest to explain, because it appears to be about solving a genuine political conundrum.
Previously at Environment, among other ministries and most recently at the catch all ministry the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove has a reputation as the Government’s trouble shooter and the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government is certainly troubled.
Not only is it mired in accusations of sleaze on account of the activities of the previous Secretary of State Robert “Honest Bob” Jenrick. Activities such as skewing town centre development funds towards Conservative constituencies, including his own of Newark, and unlawfully expediting, and then being forced to reverse, a decision to save developer Richard Desmond £40 million, a matter of days after watching the developers promotional video at a Conservative Party dinner, Mr Jenrick’s flagship Planning Bill, heralded in the “Planning for the Future” White Paper, has been delayed into the late Autumn.
The delay is mostly on account of the fact that, since the Conservatives saw their vote tank by almost 20% at Chesham and Amersham, causing the loss of the seat to the Liberal Democrats by over eight thousand votes, Conservative MP’s in the South of England have been ordering brown corduroy trousers at the thought of swathes of greenbelt in their constituencies being levelled by Boris Johnson’s levelling up algorithm setting house building targets with a presumption in favour of planning permission, and even less opportunity for meaningful local debate and consent than exist currently.
Indeed, London Mayor Sadiq Khan branded the proposals a,
“nakedly ideological assault on local democracy”.
A Scot whose own seat is in the South of England, Mr Gove is likely to understand those concerns, and he will bring also his experience of Environmental issues where he gained a surprising number of plaudits as Environment Secretary between 2017 and 2019.
At that time Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven praised Mr Gove saying he had accomplished meaningful changes in areas such as single use plastics, and the banning of noenicitinoid chemicals which are harmful to bees. Mr Sauven concluded,
“Gove has defied many people’s expectations on the environment”.
Those representing archaeologists will hope for the chance to develop a similar listening relationship in the coming months.
At the same time Mr Gove will also understand the Prime Ministers need to, at least appear to, try to deliver on his “Levelling Up” agenda in the Midlands and North and to protect the Union in the face of pressure for a fresh referendum on Scottish independence.
It is also a measure of the new Secretary of State’s reputation as a trouble shooter, and willingness to take on high risk political projects, that on the day of the reshuffle it became known also that the Prime Minister had charged Mr Gove also with “saving Christmas” by sorting out glitches in retail supply chains caused by the toxic combination of Brexit and the Covid pandemic, which are resulting in gaps on supermarket shelves and warnings that there will be a shortage of toys in December.
It is a serious agenda for someone who, whether you agree with him or not, must be regarded as a serious and experienced political operator.
However, if Mr Gove can be said to be a serious politician [at least when not strutting his funky stuff on an Aberdeen dancefloor], that is not a charge which can be levelled with any credibility at the new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries.
Indeed, appropriately given the brief, the appointment of Nadine Vanessa Dorries, to what was once called “the Ministry of Fun”, has all the appearance of the kind of political performance art which is designed to provoke, distract and entertain in equal measure.
Cruelly nicknamed “Mad Nad” by her critics, including Suzanne Moore in the Guardian, until today’s appointment, Ms Dorries was probably best known for skipping Westminster in the Autumn of 2012 to take part in the ITV “reality” TV series, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here,” without telling the Conservative Party whips. An action which cost her a five month suspension from the Parliamentary Conservative Party, and required her to eat Ostrich anus.
However the brief hiatus in her political career had gained her what seems to have been a five figure fee, in spite of the fact she was the first “celebrity” to be voted out of the jungle. [Unfortunately her constituents in the safe seat of Mid Bedfordshire did not take the hint. Having first been elected to Westminster in 2005 she was returned in all subsequent General Elections.]
Ms Dorries declined to reveal precisely what she earned from the three week trip to Australia, claiming there was a confidentiality clause in her contract. However, she was eventually forced by the Parliamentary standards watchdog to reveal that her media company had made a profit of £82,000 in the twelve months including the appearance.
In fact, in appointing Ms Dorries to the role of overseeing digital culture, broadcasting, sport and the performing arts, Mr Johnson appears to have set out with the intent of filing the vacancy of “Secretary of State for Making a Racist Gaffe” left vacant by his sacking of the now ex-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.
This is because while, so far as we know, Mr Williamson only managed to make one racist misidentification of two of Britain’s leading celebrities, the sporting stars, Marcus Rashford and Mano Itoje, Ms Dorries managed not only to liken MP Chuka Umuna to boxer Chris Eubank for no other reason than they are both male and black, she also managed to confuse two women of South Asian heritage, journalist Ash Sarkar and Labour Party activist Faiza Shaheen. A mistake which drew a withering response from fellow Conservative Baroness Warsi, who tweeted,
“No @AyoCaesar and @faizashaheen
are two different people Nadine 😂
Honestly not all brown women look the same 🤦🏽♀️
@ayeshahazarika and Baroness Sandy Verma are my “same same brown sister”
Who are yours 🤣”
However, given his own propensity for racist “bantz” the Prime Minister is probably happy to discount such gaffes as Ms Dorries has demonstrated precisely the kind of qualifications needed for a Culture Secretary in a Boris Johnson Government.
That is she is an fundamentalist Brexiter, Johnson loyalist, culture war warrior, who hates the BBC and the appointment seems designed deliberately to at the same time please the Conservative Party base and to provoke the famously leftie lovies of the cultural establishment.
This Tweet from February 2020 alone would qualify her for the DCMS job in the eyes of 10 Downing Street’s Culture War Generalissimo [and alleged former organiser of sex parties] Dougie Smith, not to mention many Conservative activists,
“I’ve deleted a tweet I posted this morning, bcse I realised people would use it to pile in on the person I was tweeting about. I was trying to make a point that the #bbc favour strident, very left wing, often hypocritical and frequently patronising views that turn people away.”
In December 2017 she also showed she was already across her new brief by tweeting this insightful analysis of the most pressing contemporary cultural issues,
“Left wing snowflakes are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and suppressing free speech. Sadly, it must be true, history does repeat itself. It will be music next.”
It would be cruel to point out that, after Covid-19, the most damage to the UK music industry has been done recently by Ms Dorries’ favourite political project Brexit, but it must be said she inherits a situation where the Government and DCMS stand accused of dong nothing to help smooth the way for touring performers and crews. A situation which has earned the Government some high profile critics.
Having previously accused the Government of being “Philistines”, Elton John said the excitement of hearing the latest announcement from the DCMS in August about post Brexit visa arrangements,
“soon turned to disappointment after realising it seems to be a rehash of what we already know”.
On the bright side, one of the perks of being Culture Secretary is known to be the offer of free tickets to shows and events.
However, given Ms Dorries record as a social conservative, and particularly her consistent opposition to extensions of Gay Rights and Equal Marriage, expressed in her voting record and comments such as this from an article on the website Conservative Home,
“Gay marriage is a policy which has been pursued by the metro elite gay activists and needs to be put into the same bin [as reform of the House of Lords].”
…it might be suggested that the Theatre world best avoid welcoming the new Secretary of State to her post with freebies for “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” and “Pricilla Queen of the Desert.”
Although reports from tea rooms and bars of Westminster suggest Mr Gove would probably enjoy both shows.
Meanwhile, faced with the likelihood that Ms Dorries remains in post until the next election [which is what this is all really about], or until one of her past brushes with alleged racism, homophobia, or the Parliamentary expenses authorities catches up with her, perhaps the only thing to do is follow the advice of Sarah Ditum reviewing Ms Dorries first novel, “The Four Streets” for the New Statesmen.
Noting Ms Dorries skill at writing “Oirish” dialogue in her novel, Ms Ditum summed the book up thus,
“Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, feck this shite.”