China cyber attacks: ‘Olive’ flops in front of Tory backbenchers while his old boss shines

Politics

When David Cameron was prime minister, Oliver Dowden was one of his backroom fixers, first at Tory HQ and then in 10 Downing Street.

From his early days as a Tory researcher he’s been known as “Olive” because of an office typo. But it’s a nickname that’s stuck, even now he’s deputy prime minister.

Politics live: Tractors descend on Westminster for protest

Despite his rapid rise to near the top of British politics, he’s been accused of a wooden persona and being accident prone. Harsh, but probably fair.

He told a US interviewer in 2012: “Most of my time is spent with day-to-day crisis management.”

Whoops! He then laughed nervously and added: “We’re not permanently in crisis!”

But his crisis management skills appear to have deserted him in his handling of the China cyber-hacking row as he endured a torrid time in the Commons.

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Oliver Dowden faced a torrid time in the Commons after he made this statement

After a big build-up over the weekend when the government let it be known the UK was to launch a major crackdown on China, it was a massive let-down.

There’ll be sanctions against the hackers, the government boasted in advance. Even though many MPs are rightly sceptical about sanctions, it sounded like a big deal.

Yet when “Olive” stood up in the Commons to make his much-hyped statement, the number of people sanctioned was… two, along with something called APT31, whatever that is.

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Predictably, the China hawks led the Tory backbench onslaught. Sir Iain Duncan Smith sneered that the statement was “like an elephant giving birth to a mouse”.

Ex-minister Tim Loughton said he was “underwhelmed”, and the SNP’s Stewart McDonald taunted Mr Dowden by saying: “The deputy prime minister has turned up at a gun fight with a wooden spoon.”

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick tweeted that the UK fightback was “derisory” and “feeble”, while Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was “sadly insufficient”.

Labour’s Kevan Jones, a senior member of the Intelligence and Security Committee – which published a damning report on Chinese cyber attacks last October – demanded to know: “Is that it?”

And neatly summing up the despair of most MPs in the chamber, who concluded that Mr Dowden’s statement was a flop, Mr Jones added: “The spin was clearly not matched by this statement.”

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‘We won’t be bullied into silence by China’, says Sir Iain Duncan Smith

But while “Olive” bombed in the Commons, his old boss Lord Cameron was shining and earning rave reviews at a specially-convened meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee.

When he arrived, Sky News asked him about the tough time his old protégé had suffered in the Commons.

“I wasn’t there,” he replied. “Sorry. I missed it.” Hmm. Very diplomatic.

Leaving the meeting, Tory MPs said Lord Cameron’s “tour of the world”, in a Q&A lasting just under an hour, had been “a class act”, “very impressive” and “marvellous”.

Tim Loughton tackled the former PM on Mr Dowden’s statement that had left him underwhelmed in the Commons. Mr Loughton clearly wasn’t satisfied with his answer, as he left the meeting early.

But to those Tories who accuse him of being soft on China – remember his famous trip to a pub with the Chinese president in 2015? – Lord Cameron said the situation had changed since he was PM and the government had to adapt. Very diplomatic, again.

It was on Israel-Hamas, however, that the foreign secretary faced the toughest questions, particularly on a Daily Telegraph report last week that he’d threatened to cut off arms supplies to Israel unless it let aid into Gaza.

Not true, Lord Cameron told the 40 or so Tory MPs in the Boothroyd Room in parliament’s Portcullis House. He said he was “working with Israel as a close friend and didn’t want to see it prosecuted for not letting aid in”.

Not surprisingly, the foreign secretary also backed the United Nations’ Israel-Hamas ceasefire resolution passed earlier in the afternoon, telling the MPs: “Without us drafting it, it was our resolution.”

He may have been out of politics for seven years, but Lord Cameron is an old hand at turning on the charm for pesky Conservative backbenchers at meetings of the 1922 Committee.

It’s a pity that none of his stardust rubbed off on “Olive” all those years ago, when he was prime minister and the now-deputy prime minister was one of his backroom team.

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