Nadine Dorries, maverick MP and former I’m A Celebrity contestant, was quite delighted that her appointment to the post of Secretary of State for Culture sent shockwaves through the establishment.
‘You could hear the almond milk latte cups hitting the floor at the BBC,’ she mischievously quipped at the time.
The incredulity was shared by Nadine herself, as she reveals over a cup of tea. Builders, naturally.
‘I was sitting in a room in Downing Street and my daughter WhatsApp’d me to say Laura Kuenssberg [the BBC political editor] had tweeted to say I was the new Secretary of State. I said, “Well, that can’t be right.”’
Certainly, the woman from the council estate in Liverpool had been expecting some career news — namely that having been a junior minister responsible for mental health, she’d probably risen as far as she was ever going to climb and was probably heading for the exit.
‘There was no way I was going to be promoted. I was 64! I’d ordered a greenhouse with double sliding doors. I’d given away my clothes,’ she admits. Excuse us? ‘My work clothes. I’d packed them in bin bags and given them to Afghan women returning to the workplace.’
She took the call summoning her to Downing Street while ‘sitting in the hairdresser’s’. She argued that the Prime Minister didn’t need to fire her in person. ‘I said, “He doesn’t need to do the speech. He will have a long day. I’m fine.”’
She went anyway, after a speedy blow-dry. Talk about a whirlwind.
Her critics haven’t seen the funny side yet. Left-wing Twitter needed smelling salts. One objector commented: ‘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.’
A Cameron Cutie, as the former prime minister’s cohort of female MPs was patronisingly known, Nadine says she felt ‘inferior’. Laudably, she wants to challenge that culture, taking the art and media worlds out of the control of cliques, giving football back to the fans, all those things that are easy to say but fiendishly difficult to do.
In her first major interview in the post, Nadine, nurse turned businesswoman turned best-selling novelist, snaps a biscuit — ‘give me chocolate. I need the energy’ — and ponders whether it was her stint in the TV celebrity jungle that ultimately sealed her the job of her life. ‘Did it help my political career? No way. It probably hindered it. But did it help me sell 2.4 million books? Probably.’
We meet in Liverpool where her novels — 15 of them written in seven years — mostly sagas about growing up in poverty-stricken communities in the 1950s and 60s, are set. Why so much sneering about them? About her? Snobbery and misogyny, she concludes.
‘They,’ she says, pointedly, ‘don’t like me because I am a woman, because I am from a working-class background. They like you to be cowed, make you retreat and some [female] MPs will do that because it is easier. I won’t.’
Who is ‘they?’ Does she mean the posh boys whom she famously once said didn’t know the price of milk?
‘I wish I’d never said “posh boys” but they are,’ she says. ‘There are those like David Cameron and George Osborne who struggle to talk to anyone not from their background.’
A Cameron Cutie, as the former prime minister’s cohort of female MPs was patronisingly known, Nadine says she felt ‘inferior’.
Laudably, she wants to challenge that culture, taking the art and media worlds out of the control of cliques, giving football back to the fans, all those things that are easy to say but fiendishly difficult to do.
But isn’t Boris the biggest posh boy of all? She insists Johnson, who’d been in Parliament for four years already when she became an MP, never made her feel inferior.
‘My office was just a couple of doors from his and he would have us in for a cup of tea, talk about how to make speeches from the back benches. He was welcoming. And he has a vision.’
Even before he was PM, she called Boris statesmanlike. ‘I know what you’re going to say,’ she says, aware everyone is thinking of his foray into Peppa Pig this week. ‘Those comments he made about Peppa Pig. It’s our biggest export. I know because this is my department. Do not underestimate Boris.’
She likes to think they are cut from similar cloth. She was called Mad Nad even before she went in the jungle — even her friends, such as fellow author and acerbic observer Sasha Swire, have used the name. She didn’t mind then, but she does now: ‘Because I am not mad.’
Is she a maverick though? She shrugs. ‘I’m not a cardboard cut-out robotic mantra politician. I’m not one of those people who says they wanted to be in politics since they could read, because that’s not normal.’
She rolls her eyes, and jokes about the William Hagues of this world who were earmarked as future leaders in their teens. Not for her. Or her children. She’d have been horrified if her daughters had announced a burning desire to get into politics.
She makes a joke about how she would have told them to ‘get into the normal things that teenagers are supposed to get into.’
She is entertaining company, stomping around Liverpool with glamorous hair but in a sensible raincoat and stout but fashionable boots. We go on a tour of Goodison Park, Everton’s home. Her great-grandfather George Bargery was actually a founder of the club, but she herself is a Liverpool fan.
We visit the street where she used to live. Her house has long since been demolished. The area is quite bleak, even now, but she talks of the warmth of the community.
In 2012, Westminster was shocked when Nadine and her husband Paul split, after 23 years of marriage and 33 years together. Now, she admits they should never have split up and it was one of her biggest regrets. ‘We were actually reunited,’ she confides. ‘But then Paul was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer.’
She has to pass her brother’s grave every time she comes ‘home’ (he died in a car accident when he was 27) but ‘let’s not talk about that. I only had three hours’ sleep last night, and I’ll cry’.
She is ten weeks into what sounds like the job from hell. Her portfolio — which covers not only Culture, but Digital, Media and Sport — is not so much full as overflowing. Much of it involves going to battle with the likes of the BBC, social media giants and football clubs. Much has been made of her war on Leftie woke-ism.
‘Define woke-ism,’ she says, trying to become more statesmanlike.
Oh come on, Nadine! Pronouns, gender, statues, all that stuff the old Nadine would tweet about.
‘Well, statues will not be getting knocked down on my watch, not if I can help it. So, you know, if you’re talking about this culture, which sometimes is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to situations, which could be interpreted as woke or cancel culture, I prefer to take all that wording out of it and look for what it is.’
But, yes, she is horrified at the creep of woke-ism across Britain today. She hits out at the recent decision by the Brit Awards to scrap gender-specific music categories, insisting that it’s yet another example of women’s rights being eroded.
She is passionate about women’s rights, she says, but not to the point where everyone goes cuckoo. She harrumphs about fellow MP Stella Creasy bringing her baby into the Commons this week.
She’s a new grandmother, her first granddaughter is 12 weeks old, and shrieks about the noise babies make at this age.
‘The chamber is a professional workplace and there is a creche. It is not a women’s rights issue.’
Her own years juggling children and work led her to set up a childcare company, which made her rich and set her on the path she’s on now. ‘I was making half a million pounds a year, but I set that company up to help women who had to travel for work, do all the things MPs do.’
In a similar no-nonsense fashion, she scoffs at the claims made by fellow Tory MP Caroline Nokes that she was groped by Stanley Johnson, father of Boris.
Nadine says she is passionate about women’s rights, but not to the point where everyone goes cuckoo. She harrumphs about fellow MP Stella Creasy bringing her baby into the Commons this week. She’s a new grandmother, her first granddaughter is 12 weeks old, and shrieks about the noise babies make at this age. ‘The chamber is a professional workplace and there is a creche. It is not a women’s rights issue.’
‘I don’t believe it happened,’ she says, sharply. ‘I have known Stanley for 15 years. He is a gentleman. It never happened to me. Maybe there is something wrong with me.’
Is she saying she hasn’t experienced ‘handsy’ sexism? She shakes her head. ‘But if you ask me have I experienced mansplaining, being talked down to because I am a woman, yes and yes.’
She did, however, suffer the sort of abuse ‘that puts things in perspective’, from a vicar, who was a family friend, when she was nine. That was never reported to the police — ‘you couldn’t, then’ — but she got a revenge of sorts when she wrote about an abusing priest in her novels.
‘I wanted him to read it and recognise himself,’ she says. Alas, she discovered he’d died before he could.
She’s touchy about some aspects of her family life, insisting she has no memory of an interview her mum gave when she was in the celebrity jungle, saying Nadine was a nightmare at school, and that she worried her daughter would never get a decent job.
‘She is just my mum. Did she ever say she was proud of me? We don’t, with our background.’
Besides, Nadine insists, she did fine at school: ‘I got O-’evels, which was more than most.’
She was never short of ambition. She worked as a nurse, but when she married her husband Paul (whom she met at 17), they lived in Africa for a spell because of his work as a mining engineer.
Hers was a relatively late entry to the political fray, sparked by fury, she says. ‘It was in the 1990s and I heard someone, I think it must have been John Major, saying something pompous, and Paul said, “Well do something about it.”’
By this stage she had sold her childcare company to Bupa, so ‘I did not need to earn more money’.
She was duly elected as MP for Mid Bedfordshire, but their marriage did not survive the journey that was to come. In 2012, Westminster was shocked when they split, after 23 years of marriage and 33 years together.
Nadine is ten weeks into what sounds like the job from hell. Her portfolio — which covers not only Culture, but Digital, Media and Sport — is not so much full as overflowing. Much of it involves going to battle with the likes of the BBC, social media giants and football clubs. Much has been made of her war on Leftie woke-ism.
Now, she admits they should never have split up and it was one of her biggest regrets.
‘We were actually reunited,’ she confides. ‘But then Paul was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer. That was in February 2019 and he died in the June. We were going to get married again. Paul wanted it, but he was dying. A vicar came to the house, for a blessing. It wasn’t an official register office thing.’
She and their daughters nursed him at the end. ‘We didn’t want anyone else to come in, so we didn’t leave him.’ She talks about how your world shrinks when someone is dying, ‘from the garden, to the bedroom, to the bed’.
She is single now. ‘Paul is buried across the road from our house so I say goodnight to him from the bedroom every night. I think I will be single for a long time because he’s keeping an eye on me.’
She’s a bit tearful, but then the old combative Nadine emerges again. We talk about her daughters. She is fiercely protective of them, but has also put them in the firing line. She once had a typically Nadine-style rant about nepotism, and was slapped down when it was pointed out that both her daughters had worked for her. She’s insistent: ‘I did not have them working for me at the same time, at a cost to the taxpayer of £80k. If I’d done that, I’d be in jail.’
She will still rail against a culture, in organisations such as the BBC, which gives children a leg-up. ‘I had a conversation with a BBC presenter. He said there were always kids of producers in the newsroom. It’s constant.’
In a similar vein, we chat about how can she be the one to ‘clean up’ Twitter when she could be accused of having been less than kind on the platform previously.
Deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, Health Secretary Sajid Javid, and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries look on as Boris Johnson’s delivers his leader’s keynote speech during the Conservative Party conference at Manchester Central Convention Complex on October 6, 2021 in Manchester, England
Today, she holds her hands up, admitting she sent inappropriate tweets ‘when I was a backbencher with no prospect of promotion’.
She says if she’d known she was going to get a top job, then she probably wouldn’t have been tweeting ‘about some journalist’s testicles’ (to clarify, it was about nailing them to the floor.) But it’s only an apology to a point.
‘I was no angel online, but I was not abusive. If you lived your life with an eye on promotion, you wouldn’t say boo to a goose.’
Besides, she says, they (she means the men) harass her more.
‘I mean, look at John Nicholson [SNP MP and member of the Parliamentary Culture Media and Sport Select Committee that recently grilled Nadine about her language in tweets]. He tweeted about me countless times after the Select Committee. There are a number of men who I do sometimes lash out at because they harass and they’re obsessive.’
So she will continue to say boo to all the geese.
Colourful to the end, she says she won’t be called Grandma, ‘because the other grandmother got there first, and I won’t fight her’.
Instead, she would quite like to be called Hoggie, as she has rescue hedgehogs in her garden, and can’t wait until her granddaughter is old enough to feed them.
Only Nadine Dorries could want her Granny-name to be associated with a prickly creature.