A week in the life of Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden

There is a problem with assuming that all politicians are idiots: more often than we realise, they are smarter than we are.

Hopelessly out-of-his-depth Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden has been busy this week. A man who has all the authenticity of a character at a murder mystery weekend; he has spent all week covering himself in infamy.

Which is fitting. The gung-ho Cabinet are behaving like a besieged rat colony.

Oliver Dowden

Oliver Dowden

The destruction of the arts and live entertainment industry seems almost too big to take in, doesn’t it? It is an impossible thing to consider. The real tragedy is not that we cannot prevent it. The real tragedy, I think, lies in the fact that we can.

Industry leaders are at their wits end from repeating the fact that 34 million theatregoers attend 63,000 performances and all the financial benefits that brings to the economy – and that is before hotels, restaurants, bars, and other economic activity.

According to The Sunday Times, theatres will ‘not reopen until next year.’ It stated that venues will be encouraged to “aggressively mothball” until they can open under profitable conditions in 2021, without social distancing. Yikes.

Indeed, Chancellor Rishi Sunak holds piggy bank. He is, though, expected to announce a cultural rescue fund as part of his mini budget on Wednesday. The package is said to be a mixture of loans and grants offering direct help to arts organisations. Arts Council England are set to get a £1.57 billion cash injection; about 90 days too late.

Dowden spoke out following criticism of his handling of the pandemic and the ways in which the arts are being supported. Or not, in this instance.

The MP tweeted after comments made by BBC Front Row’s John Wilson, who said that he’d heard that Dowden “believes UK arts are ‘better & stronger’ for NOT having the sort of financial support offered by other European countries”. When Dowden was told that “UK arts need huge new investment”, Rattle states that this “wasn’t something that was welcome for him [the Culture Secretary] to hear”.

Dowden clapped back, which was unsettling as he never replies to anybody on Twitter: “Not true. What I said was that arts organisations who have worked hard to increase income from non-government sources should not be penalised for it in this crisis. I understand the seriousness of the situation and am working on it every single day.”

The following day Dowden was at the Palladium to meet with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Sigh.


Last month Lloyd Webber revealed plans to test safe performances at the Palladium, with thermal imaging cameras and silver ion self-cleaning door handles to help prevent any spread of infection.

Yet the reality is that we are in the middle of a unique recession, created by deliberate Government action to save lives. All industries were put into an artificially induced coma and most of them are now being resuscitated. But the arts are being left behind and are in serious trouble.

The situation is as desperate as Dowden’s timeline.

And yet, today the MP for Hertsmere found time during his schedule to Zoom with Tom Cruise to tell the Hollywood star about the relaxing of quarantine rules meaning that production can resume on the latest Mission Impossible blockbuster.

Back to reality: the grim outlook on jobs is part of a wider picture of economic gloom; the fate of 290,000 jobs across UK Theatres hang in the balance.

The fact that Dowden worked as a special adviser and Deputy Chief of Staff to David Cameron where he said most of his time was spent on “day-to-day crisis management” makes him feel like a broad stroke in a heavy-handed satire.

Encouraging to see him building on his friend Cameron’s legacy: trotters up even before you have screwed the country, instead of only after.

Maybe this is what you get into politics for. On the other hand, is there a less self-respecting role in public life than being the haunted face of the decimation of our ‘world-beating’ theatre industry?