It’s not often you see Tory MPs celebrating anything, but on Monday a bunch of them were packed into an office high in Portcullis House to toast the rehabilitation of Nadine Dorries. Last autumn the Mid-Bedfordshire MP was suspended from the party after appearing on the reality TV show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! For six months she has been in limbo, unable to call herself a Tory. Last week, she was allowed back into the club. We met in the House of Commons after her bustling ‘Return of the Prodigal Daughter’ reception.
Her fellow Tories, she says, are pleased she’s returned. Every day, she’s accosted by MPs and staffers keen to welcome her back into the fold. ‘I was walking along from the car park to here and MPs were coming up and kissing me,’ she says. ‘It’s just such a lovely feeling.’
The prodigal is back, but she isn’t repentant. In fact, Dorries is insistent that speaking her mind is one of her key selling points. ‘Look, this is who I am,’ she says. ‘Who I am is authentic and I don’t have this filter that filters out everything that’s human or everything that’s funny or emotional or instinctive and what comes out of the other side of the filter is the professional politician. I was born without that filter.’ That honesty makes her popular not just with backbenchers, who tend to be very fond and protective of Dorries, but also with her constituents. She was recently teased over a local supermarket’s PA system about the grubs she’d had to eat on camera in Australia.
Nadine Dorries is a relaxed interviewee. She sits with her bare feet resting on the sofa in her office; she teases her researcher and dives off into little anecdotes about her friends and family. But her manner has made life awkward at times. ‘When I first got into Parliament, I was in the members’ tea room with [fellow Tory] John Hayes,’ she says. ‘He said to me, “Nadine, have you ever read Alice in Wonderland? You have just come through a hole and you have landed in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and you don’t understand a word anyone is saying, do you?… You are like someone from the real world and I can see you’re lost.”’
She found herself, politically, during her upbringing in a council house in Liverpool where she says she encountered ‘an almost abrasive, ruthless honesty about people’. When Margaret Thatcher ‘reached out a hand into my council estate and helped people out’ through the right to buy, Dorries realised she was a Conservative. Later she realised she needed to be active in the party because its representatives infuriated her. ‘I read an article with some quotes by Ken Clarke and another Conservative MP and I was so angry at the pomposity and the arrogance… I just remember thinking there is only one way to deal with this and that is to get on the inside.’
Now she’s on the inside, looking out. And she finds the view rather discouraging. She draws parallels between the dying Tory government in 1997 and today’s political scene. ‘[Voters] hated us because the Labour party promise, the vision, the song “Things Can Only Get Better” had a purchase on people’s imagination, and in their hearts that I see being replicated by Ukip today.’
The official Tory policy is not to mention Ukip. Dorries demurs. Tory colleagues were relieved that Nigel Farage failed to entice Dorries over during her exile, but her return doesn’t mean she has set her face against Ukip. She has already mooted 2015 candidates with a joint Ukip/Tory endorsement. Now she reveals she will be seeking that arrangement for herself. ‘I will be having that kind of conversation with my association,’ she says. She’d need its permission to stand as a joint candidate — but she seems happy for herself and other Tory MPs to seek this before the leadership then follows.
She says she can appreciate the conflict felt by Tory voters who went for Ukip in the local elections. ‘There are members in my association who approached me recently who are confused,’ she said. ‘They have always been Conservative and will never change their allegiance but feel very much as though they have a huge amount of empathy with Ukip. I feel it would be a travesty if Ukip came in and took the seats off our councillors or indeed me when actually their policies and their beliefs are very much Ukip. Because what we have done, we have thrown clothes off and they have picked them up and put them on.’
Her suggestion is that certain Tories just pick up these clothes themselves. If Dorries were to become the first joint Ukip/Tory candidate, she would embolden other anxious Tories, a dozen of whom have already told her they agree that two badges on the ballot paper would save their skins. And it’s not at all clear that Cameron would have the power to stop her.
The Tory party also needs to put gay marriage on hold and end its ‘fascination with green taxes and green energy and wind farms’. And there’s the image problem: ‘The chumocracy has got to stop. People think: “Oh, that doesn’t matter, people don’t know who’s in No. 10.”’ In fact, she says, it does matter because it leads to ‘spin-off stories’. ‘Labour have probably as many public schoolboys as we do, it’s just that the BBC are never going to attack them for that.’
She has been picking her words carefully, clearly wary of insulting the leadership again. ‘David Cameron has to show leadership because that’s something the other leaders aren’t doing. It’s where he can make the running: by coming out and showing leadership.’ What would that involve? ‘Taking control, a grip on Downing Street, trusting people from outside his own inner circle and reaching out to his own backbenchers and his own party, which I think he has already identified as a problem.’
The Prime Minister has made a concerted effort to woo Tories recently, and Dorries’s return to the party was part of that. He must now decide how he handles a blunt MP like her. She is explicitly seeking Ukip’s endorsement — subject to the approval of her constituency party — and this may end up in the bifurcation of the Tory party. So what’s more dangerous for Cameron, keeping her on, or kicking her out? If she were a genuine loner, she might never have returned. But as her ‘welcome back’ party suggested on Monday, there are a great many Tory MPs like her. And for Cameron, this is by far the larger problem.
Isabel Hardman is the editor of Coffee House, The Spectator’s political blog.