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