David Cameron ‘plotted’ with Oliver Dowden weeks before he stepped down as Tory Party chair


David Cameron in plot against Boris: Former Prime Minister met with Oliver Dowden weeks before he stepped down as Tory Party chairman fuelling concerns rebels are bidding to ‘destabilise’ Johnson’s leadership

  •  Former PM met then-Tory Party chair at elite Mayfair private members’ club
  • Meeting was after big local election losses – fortnight  before no confidence vote
  •  Friends of David Cameron and Oliver Dowden claim meeting was innocent
  • Source close to Mr Cameron says he was not trying to ‘destabilise’ the PM

The scene was an elite private members’ club in Mayfair with a well-established reputation for anti-Boris plotting. Cocooned in an upstairs room at 5 Hertford Street were Oliver Dowden, then the Chairman of the Tory Party, and his friend, the former Prime Minister David Cameron.

It was the week after the Conservatives had sustained heavy losses in the local elections, and a fortnight before the Prime Minister would – narrowly – defeat a vote of confidence against him.

Friends of the men say the meeting was innocent.

Former Tory prime minister David Cameron met with then-party chair Oliver Dowden after the party's crushing losses in the local elections. Mr Dowden resigned as chairman in the early hours of Thursday morning following further defeats in the Wakefield and Tiverton by-elections

Former Tory prime minister David Cameron met with then-party chair Oliver Dowden after the party’s crushing losses in the local elections. Mr Dowden resigned as chairman in the early hours of Thursday morning following further defeats in the Wakefield and Tiverton by-elections

‘DC did meet with Oliver Dowden last month. He routinely sees Oliver from time to time, like he does many former colleagues and friends, but he had absolutely no prior knowledge of, or involvement in, Oliver Dowden’s resignation,’ says a source close to Mr Cameron. But word soon reached allies of Mr Johnson.

So when Mr Dowden resigned in the early hours of Thursday morning, in the wake of the double by-election defeats in Wakefield and in Tiverton, it was seen as a ‘Cameroon plot’. Mr Dowden worked for Mr Cameron as an adviser and deputy chief of staff.

The sighting of Mr Dowden with Mr Cameron at the £2,850-a-year club has fuelled concerns within No 10 that a Cameroon clique, including former Chancellor George Osborne, and backed by allies of his successor in Downing Street, Theresa May, is plotting to ‘destabilise’ the Prime Minister.

The Mayfair club is where Ministers and young royals rub shoulders with Hollywood actors. Prince Harry and Meghan had their first date there and the club has also been used by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to host ‘Biz for Liz’ events with potential financial backers for her expected leadership bid.

A senior Government source said of Dowden: ‘He’s on the Cameroon side of the party, and he’s got his revenge in early.’

And one Cabinet Minister questioned the former Culture Secretary’s loyalty, saying: ‘He never wanted to be party chairman, he wasn’t any good at being party chairman, he was annoyed about being sacked from DCMS for Nadine [Dorries]. He only backed Boris after a lot of soul-searching and always harboured significant reservations about him.’ Another Minister said: ‘I’m sure they [the Cameroons] have all been sitting around a dinner table in Chipping Norton pontificating.’

The source close to Mr Cameron insists the former Prime Minister was not trying to ‘destabilise’ Mr Johnson.

Oliver Dowden's resignation as Tory Party chair was said to have 'blindsided' Boris Johnson

Oliver Dowden’s resignation as Tory Party chair was said to have ‘blindsided’ Boris Johnson

Oliver Dowden met with David Cameron at an elite Mayfair private members club on 5 Hertford Street shortly after defeats in the local elections

Oliver Dowden met with David Cameron at an elite Mayfair private members club on 5 Hertford Street shortly after defeats in the local elections 

The Prime Minister was said to have been ‘blindsided’ by Mr Dowden’s resignation, but that was not true of many of the former chairman’s friends. They knew that he was determined to ‘control the narrative’ by leaving the Government rather than be ‘scapegoated’ by No 10 for the thumping anti-Tory swings in the seats.

The countdown to Mr Dowden’s departure started in earnest a week after the meeting with Mr Cameron, on the opening day of the Chelsea Flower Show: there, Tory donors and Boris loyalists discussed the outlines of a summer reshuffle, with the chairman top of the hit list. Mr Dowden was appointed co-chairman in September after a year and a half as Culture Secretary, with his time in the job marred by a by-election and local election losses.

Friends say that after Mr Dowden read about the discussions to sack him in the following weekend’s Mail on Sunday, he started hatching secret plans to quit – whilst projecting an air of ‘business as usual’.

One of the candidates to succeed Mr Johnson told The Mail on Sunday yesterday that Mr Dowden’s move had made an imminent leadership bid much more likely.

‘We are talking weeks or even days, not months,’ the rival said. ‘Olive’s going has turned it.’ Mr Dowden is known as ‘Olive’ to his Westminster friends.

Mr Johnson is technically protected from a further leadership challenge for a year after winning a confidence vote earlier this month, but the scale of the losses has increased the tempo of the plotting by Ministers, backbenchers and donors alike.

One Cabinet Minister has told colleagues that the ‘tipping point’ for Mr Johnson would come if the Commons Privileges Committee concludes that the Prime Minister misled MPs when he told the Commons that no Covid rules had been breached in No 10. ‘That would be of a different order – no PM can survive that,’ the Cabinet Minister – and potential successor – said.

The committee is expected to report by the autumn.

MPs and Tory donors are starting to coalesce in earnest behind Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Health Secretary Sajid Javid and his predecessor Jeremy Hunt are also expected to run.

Meanwhile, formerly loyal donors criticised Mr Johnson following the double by-election loss. One told The Mail on Sunday the Prime Minister is ‘no longer Teflon’ after Tiverton and Honiton. Another said: ‘I fear he’s nearing the end.’

Reshuffle demotions and sackings are also being discussed for Ministers and Government aides who did not pledge public allegiance and are seen as ‘disloyal’. Business Minister George Freeman, who was publicly critical over Partygate, and Prisons Minister Victoria Atkins, have been singled out as among those likely to be punished. Both Cabinet Ministers and Tory backbench MPs have pointed the finger at a ‘Cameroon plot’ behind the challengers circling Mr Johnson.

No 10 fears former Chancellor Osborne has been advising Mr Hunt on his leadership bid.

MPs, meanwhile, said Treasury Minister Jesse Norman’s excoriating letter attacking the Government on the day of the confidence vote echoed arguments recently made by friends of Mr Cameron, including criticism of the Government’s Rwanda policy.

A Cabinet Minister said of Mr Norman’s intervention: ‘It’s all the Cameroons’, while another dismissed it as a ‘silly, puerile Old Etonian-type letter’.

Other MPs have described Mr Norman as part of the ‘Old Etonian’ set around Mr Cameron, which also includes Rory Stewart.

Former Tory Minister Stewart, who lost to Mr Johnson in the 2019 leadership contest, has been a vocal critic on Twitter and the airwaves. An MP told The Mail on Sunday: ‘That Cameron faction is trying to make out we are going in a fascist direction – which is utter nonsense.’

A senior Government source last night mocked suggestions Mr Hunt should be Prime Minister.

‘Boris might resonate both negatively and positively with people, but Hunt doesn’t resonate at all. He’s useless.’

The founder of 5 Hertford Street, Robin Birley, who donated £20,000 to Mr Johnson in 2019, said last year that he would ‘definitely not’ give the Tories any more money.

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