And so Oliver Dowden goes into internal exile – joining the two in five Conservatives MPs who voted against Boris Johnson in the recent confidence ballot, plus those among the three in five who backed their leader only provisionally.
“Somebody must take responsibility,” the Party Chairman writes – and the implication is that the Prime Minister should be doing so. “Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings,” he writes, in case anyone had missed the point.
“I will remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” he concludes – not loyal, please note, to Johnson personally. Just in case anyone was still missing the point.
You may conclude that Dowden has decided to jump before he was pushed – or at least drop to the floor of this site’s Cabinet League Table. And that he also despairs of the Party’s prospects for the next election under the Prime Minister’s leadership.
Furthermore, Dowden has never looked comfortable serving in effect as the junior Party Chairman – with Ben Elliot, Johnson’s friend, chairing the Party Board and responsible for its finances.
Michael Howard began the division of labour at CCHQ when he made Maurice Saatchi Chairman at the same time as Liam Fox, and David Cameron continued it when he appointed Andrew Feldman, who eventually became sole Chairman in his own right.
Dowden will have been hoping either to stay at the Culture department when he was made Chairman during the last reshuffle, or else to head another department like the quality technocrat he is – Education, perhaps.
But he was dispatched to get the Party’s machine fighting fit, and his friends are insistent that, during both by-election campaigns, campaign centres were well organised, the literature was of good quality, the candidates were well supported, and that “not one single MP has complained” about the campaign itself.
However, briefing against Dowden will doubtless begin almost at once (though he is not remotely to blame for yesterday’s results) – and Downing Street and others will be looking for ulterior motives.
Certainly, the ex-Chairman was part of a gang of three that wrote together in support of Johnson during the 2019 leadership election. The first was Robert Jenrick, fired in the last reshuffle. The second is Dowden himself. The third is Rishi Sunak, who differs from the Prime Minister on economic policy and whose relations with him are strained.
“I want to emphasise that this is a deeply personal decision,” Dowden writes, doubtless to head off claims of a plot by friends of the Chancellor or indeed anyone else.
Though his resignation will be greeted with cynical shrugs in some quarters, I believe that it is no small thing to take a decision that could end one’s front bench career altogether. I called recently for the Cabinet to tell Johnson that the game is up, and Dowden’s resignation is the closest that any of them have got.
I’m doubtful that yesterday’s dire results will themselves trigger a change in the 1922 Committee’s rules which bar a further leadership challenge for a year.
But the Westminster Village be on alert today for further resignations from the Government, and the Prime Minister must now replace Dowden – if not conduct a pre-recess reshuffle which, if misconceived or unlucky, will further lengthen the odds of his survival, and could even pitch him out altogether.