Alan Duncan’s In the Thick of It — the ultimate Westminster insider discusses Brexit, Boris, and his diaries with Rowan Pelling
PHOTO: PATRICK TSUI, CROWN COPYRIGHT
Early on in his diaries, In The Thick of It, the dapper former Conservative minister Sir Alan Duncan declares he “divides politicians into those who do or don’t pass the ‘holiday test’. In other words, would you want to go on holiday with them?” Duncan’s own adjudication is, “Blair – yes. Brown – no. Boris – yes. May – no.” Judging from the lively Zoom conversation I had with Duncan in April, the oil-man-turned-politician passes his own test with flying colours.
If I had to fill a rented villa in Mustique, gifted by the kind of mysterious benefactor who materialises when Boris Johnson needs a hol, I’d gladly take Duncan. He’s smart, amusing, gossipy, well-informed and refreshingly human, and his cultural tastes range from ballet to the TV reboot of Hawaii-5-0. I also learnt, courtesy of the diaries, that Duncan and his civil partner James Dunseath have an owl box in their garden and that “marrow-weighing is the highlight of the village year in the vicious contest between us and our neighbours Jamie and Clare Warman: great drama with the scales.”
Most of the press coverage of Duncan’s diaries has concentrated on his more caustic comments. Michael Gove is an “unctuous freak”, Gavin Williamson is a “venomous self-seeking little shit”, Priti Patel a “brassy monster”, while Boris Johnson is deemed “an embarrassing buffoon” who’s “an international stain on our reputation”. I counted twelve instances of someone being “bonkers” in the pages and a restrained six usages of “nutters”. Although Duncan protests there are more kind words than unkind ones.
While the waspish parts are huge fun, what grips is reliving the political tumult of the Brexit and Trump years through the eyes of a Westminster and Foreign Office insider – Duncan became Johnson’s deputy at the Foreign Office when he was appointed Minister of State for Europe and the Americas (2016-19 – which are the years covered by the diaries). The diaries take a globe-trotting look at the States, Argentina, the Falklands, Central Asia and the Middle East.
“Covid is a dreadful year in history but it has indeed masked deep arguments about Northern Ireland, institutions moving from the City, growing pressures in Scotland. And perhaps less tangible and less easy to measure, a diminution of our standing in the world”
And then there’s Duncan’s change of heart, from instinctive Eurosceptic to pragmatic Remainer – an about-turn that will never be forgiven by many members of his party and which resulted in sour run-ins with the “haughty old boot” who presided over his constituency association, The Duchess of Rutland. But for this reader – and many other centrists – Duncan’s arguments were and remain highly persuasive, if not worryingly prescient.
His diaries are prefaced by six pages laying out the reasons he switched allegiance, including the reflection, “With age and experience comes, if not wisdom, greater perspective. Politics cannot always be about indulging one’s natural inclinations.” Duncan goes on: “It is unworthy of a serious party of government to suggest that highly complex questions have easy answers, or that there are no trade-offs between national sovereignty and economic wellbeing. Yet during and after the 2016 referendum the increasingly swivel-eyed Brexiteer ultras in the Conservative Party mounted a determined effort to resist the encroachment of reality into their worldview.”
So I’m interested to know why Duncan feels the “nutters” triumphed. He points out that referendums “get hijacked by other issues and prejudices and, of course, are sometimes just a verdict on the government of the day.” But there were those within his party who had “a very simplistic view of the world and life in general”. He feels, even now, that “they have little understanding of the consequences of what they’ve done,” saying of the ERG (European Research Group) that they were “really just a total feral campaign within the party . . . and a narrow majority gave them too much power.”
Warnings reverberate through the diaries. Duncan predicted there would be severe economic consequences for the UK if Brexit went ahead and that it would undermine British Union. Does he think we’re already seeing ill effects? Or has the pandemic drawn attention away from the severity of certain Brexit outcomes? He replies, “Covid is a dreadful year in history but it has indeed masked deep arguments about Northern Ireland, institutions moving from the City, growing pressures in Scotland. And perhaps less tangible and less easy to measure, a diminution of our standing in the world.” Duncan believes leaving the EU will be a “slow-burning sort of decay”, and that arguments we could become the Singapore of Europe were simply not thought out.
Proving his reputation as a “Tory moderniser”, Duncan does see some room for enterprise and vision in the UK’s strong eco-movement (not what I expected from a man who spent his working life pre-parliament in the oil trade). He strongly feels there’s a “massive argument which is not being used” to capitalise on COP26, the UN’s climate change conference, which is being held in Glasgow in November. With a little vision, he believes, we could step down our reliance on cheap goods from “polluting China”. Warming to this theme, Duncan says: “if we are to be more reliant and employ people and be a real economic hub for the European and US markets we need a proper economic policy about how we invest in our own manufacturing and economy. I don’t see any of that beyond very, very puerile talk about the red wall and levelling up, whatever any of that means.”
For some reason, “puerile talk” makes me think of Gavin Williamson. Is Duncan amazed by his and Priti Patel’s seemingly unstoppable rise to power? He declares, “This is not a book of insults,” although it clearly is at times, and all the more enjoyable for it, going on, “it’s also really a voice of despair about our standing in the world and our standards in government . . . Because I think parliament has become defunct. Special advisors are basically the militant entryists, against our democratic interests, as so many of them think they’re more important than ministers.” He adds that the thing which depresses him most is the “complete collapse in the thorough process of policy making”.
Duncan says the net result is that “Everyone is just in it for themselves, crying for attention but not really working out properly how we need to govern ourselves. So I am, in the book, very hard on two or three people who I think are nothing short of self-seeking, self-interested people with no greater understanding of what they ought to be doing as a senior minister.” If you’re wondering who the third is, the strongest contender is probably Tobias Ellwood, whose time at the FO crossed with Duncan’s and whose hare-brained scheme to buy Svalbard earned his colleague’s particular contempt. A diary entry from February 2017 reads: “Ellwood has a nutty proposal that the UK should buy Svalbard, the archipelago between Norway and the North Pole – he wants it to become a UK spaceport. He’s bonkers.” Although he’s also the first to praise Ellwood for being “heroic” when there’s a terrorist attack outside Westminster in March that year: “With his soldier’s training, he had just waded in to help as the policeman lay horribly stabbed.”
Duncan lays out a powerful case for how extensively the Conservative Friends of Israel machinated against him becoming Minister of State for the Middle East. Duncan’s crime was his long-documented championing of Palestinian rights and belief in a two-state solution
I can see how swivel-eyed colleagues must be particularly depressing if you happen to have years of hard-won expertise in a region that’s crucial to British foreign policy, but are prevented from deploying it by a powerful lobby group. Duncan lays out a powerful case for how extensively the Conservative Friends of Israel machinated (successfully) against him becoming Minister of State for the Middle East when Theresa May came to power. Duncan’s crime was his long-documented championing of Palestinian rights and belief in a two-state solution. When I ask him about it he says: “Yes, I was blocked by what I think is a pernicious quasi-corrupt influence in our government and has been for over 25 years . . . they [the Conservative Friends of Israel] are using donor money as a reason for their being able to have, I think, excessive and improper direct influence at the top of government.”
Duncan’s strong feelings on the topic pervade the diaries. Later in our conversation we return to the thorny issue and he says, “How can we be a decent democratic party, which wishes to uphold the rule of law internally in the way we claim to want to do about Ukraine and China, when we turn a complete blind eye to what’s going on closer to home, which is annexing the West Bank through state support – in the sense that the Israeli defence support will defend interests of illegal settlers rather than occupied Palestinians. This is wrong. And why do we tolerate, for instance, having an ambassador to the UK from Israel who is a settler, i.e., in full breach of international law?
Despite the interference of the CFI, Duncan concedes, “The appointment of ministers is an utterly arbitrary process at the best of times. And there is no proper consideration given to anyone being suitable or having knowledge.” Which isn’t even the start of the problem. Duncan says, “I am not aware that in our government over the last 20 years a Prime Minister has ever had regular meetings with departmental ministerial teams. Now, in a company, you’d expect the CEO or the chairman to sit down with the finance department or the marketing department . . . so that he knows who’s who, what’s what. Such meetings, such working meetings of that sort never happen in government. The Cabinet is a farce and very few members of the Cabinet know how to run their teams.” It’s a pretty damning assessment.
I tell Duncan I was struck by the fact he always swept his FO staff off to restaurants for a swanky Christmas lunch or party, that may involve karaoke (although I did giggle at his self-praising remark that “Not many ministers would treat their team so lavishly”). He says he also hosted days in Rutland, “I took pride in motivating and working closely with my private office. And one of the reasons I’m so virulently against Priti Patel is that I know not only did she not do that, but she pretty well did the opposite.” Duncan believes the details of the bullying allegations against Patel should be published: “It’s not acceptable.”
Many elements of government seem unacceptable at present. I ask Duncan if part of the problem is that special advisers such as Fiona Hill (under Theresa May) and Dominic Cummings (under Johnson) keep people from the PM’s door. Duncan says, “I think it’s worse than that. I think they boss around ministers supposedly on behalf of the PM but mainly because it’s just them doing what they want. So they are a despicable addition to our government and have a unique capacity to corrode and even destroy it.”
But what about Boris Johnson? How culpable is he? This is an unavoidable topic – after all, Duncan was Johnson’s number two at the FO where there was a “Little and Large” edge to their double act: Boris the shambolic and Duncan the urbane foil to Johnson’s class clown. We learn in the diaries how Duncan shoved briefs under his boss’s nose, when Johnson’s notorious aversion to detail threatened to derail him. That said, the diarist is genuine in his praise of Johnson when he tears a strip off the Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko in the wake of the Salisbury Skripal poisonings: “Whatever anyone might ever think about Boris on so many things, on this occasion he was brilliant.” Equally telling is Duncan’s afterthought, “Perhaps it worked so well because he was not larking about and playing to the gallery – he spoke from the heart and meant what he said.”
Duncan describes Johnson to me as “a phenomenon of plusses and minuses. We got on perfectly well. But he was always in a huddle with Lee Cain and people – all Brexit goings on – and, of course, he never really left The Daily Telegraph. It became the Daily Boris and he was doing a double page spread on this, a front page on that.” He describes it as “a paradox” that Boris’s Brexit deal was, in the end, no better than Theresa May’s, “if not worse.” And while he concedes that Boris won a significant general election victory, he reflects, “This is not a government that people have fallen in love with.” He goes on, “It’s only thanks to Corbyn that we won and to Starmer that we remain ahead at the moment.”
Perhaps the real difference between the two men is best summed up by a diarised conversation Duncan had with the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on 29 March 2017: ““He says Boris doesn’t appreciate that diplomacy is not about having nice conversations with your friends; it’s about how you engage with those who are awkward.”
Although Duncan is keen to give credit where he feels it’s due: “You know, I think that actually we need to give [Johnson] credit for using his force of personality to galvanise the country to follow Covid prevention rules. And although the PPE procurement was a scandalous farce, you know, things have got a lot better, the vaccine roll out has been a triumph. And you do have to stop and think, ‘Could Jeremy Corbyn ever had led the country through this?’”
Duncan won’t be drawn so much on David Cameron, whom he also served under. Although one of the more telling incidents in the book is when Duncan secures a rare solo conversation with the then PM: “We walked through to his study, alone except for Larry the Number 10 cat. At which point DC said, ‘Sofa’s all yours – next to the pussy. First time for everything!’” This is exactly the sort of schoolboy humour that rival Tory diarist, Sasha Swire, outlines in her own journals and which leaves many women in handwringing despair. You don’t want your political leaders to be men who need an indulgent matron.
The scope of Duncan’s diaries are impossible to summarise in one interview. As reviewers have pointed out, rare is the political beast who’s close to the heart of events, can write amusingly and has a keen eye for human foible
When I dig a little about the Greensill debacle, Duncan retorts that it’s “a pity” Cameron thought the Greensill empire was “financially justified”. He saves his scorn for the former Cabinet Secretary: “How on earth did Jeremy Heywood think that what he was proposing was some kind of wizard new banking idea which the government ought to embrace? Factoring the process, the boring end of banking, which stands between someone paying and someone being paid, so that someone can get paid earlier and then the bank can get paid later, is the most elementary model of trade financing. There is nothing you can do to polish that into something more shiny. And the fact that Heywood, who was mates in banking with Greensill, suddenly thought that this was a wizard new way of all things to get the government to pay pharmacists – better for one bit of government to pay another bit of government quicker – is culpable.”
Another swipe at the current Conservative regime comes with Duncan’s blast against cuts to Britain’s foreign aid budget: “By the way, we are doing something that is totally illegal by not meeting 0.7 per cent of ODA (Official Development Assistance) and deliberately saying we’re only doing half a per cent, without actually changing the primary legislation. This is dishonest and illegal in my view. If you want to change it, change it.” He is similarly despondent about the on-going in crisis in Yemen. When I say rather bathetically, “It’s terrible what’s happening there,” Duncan fires back, “It’s worse than terrible. Cholera, Covid, famine, bombs, the works. This is the war I think we could have stopped if we had a more assertive foreign policy . . . we just express a few views and do a couple of UN resolutions and a few Tweets. But when do we put our foot down? And why didn’t we say to Saudi Arabia, ‘For God’s sake, bombing Yemen is not going to solve the problem, it’s just going to make things worse.’”
Since we’re talking about Saudi, I say of all the things I found disturbing about Cameron’s involvement with financier Lex Greensill, the picture of the duo cosying up to the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the desert is probably the most upsetting – this after all was only weeks after intelligence sources had pointed to bin Salman’s role in the murder of dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Duncan replies cautiously that while diplomacy “is about dealing with people you don’t particularly like or agree with . . . it probably was unwise to go and see [Salman] . . . in a chummy way like that.”
The scope of Duncan’s diaries are impossible to summarise in one interview. As reviewers have pointed out, rare is the political beast who’s close to the heart of events, can write amusingly and has a keen eye for human foible. You will put the volume down having a better grasp of the gruelling workload at the FO, and more insight into our dealings with Turkey, Oman, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Russia, Yemen and the States. Sometimes it’s depressing to note how little things have moved on – I’m thinking, for example, of the 2017 diary entry that reveals Duncan is “deeply upset that some fruitful discussions . . . about the possible release of [Iranian prisoner] Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe were brought to such an abrupt halt.” But in the end it’s the small observations and asides that stand out. Such as Duncan’s deploring of Johnson’s ham-fisted insinuation that Barack Obama was no friend of the UK, because of his Kenyan roots. Or Duncan’s delighted collaboration with Labour MP Sarah Champion on a Commons’ tabled question on LGBT rights (“She is a really lovely person”). Or the fact Duncan used to call all the FO civil servants who briefed him on intelligence “Simon Pook – ‘S Pook” for short”. Or the diarist’s canny pen portrait of Michael Gove: “There’s something so socially unaware about him: it lies somewhere between shameless and synthetic. He has often said of himself that he’s unsuitable to be Prime Minister, which must go down as one of the strangest advertising pitches ever: ‘I’d be no good at it, so vote for me!’”
Some of the most revealing tales inevitably involve Johnson, such as the time Duncan has an interesting drink “with a banker who was at Eton with Boris. He was no fan, and says Boris took his economics revision notes without permission and then never gave them back.” There’s also a rare display of naivety on Johnson’s behalf. When he was Foreign Secretary and discussing a tabled question about Russia, Boris says to the assembled FO panjandrums: “‘The trouble with Putin is that he expects everyone to come and kiss his ring.’ He looks bemused when the entire table collapses in giggles.” Duncan says, “Foreign Secretary – 10 per cent will think pope; 90 per cent will think anus.”
I was also left intrigued by the brief diary entry on Sunday 22nd April 2018 when Duncan notes: “Apparently Carrie Symonds, head of press in Conservative HQ, is due to become a SPAD in the FCO. It’s the first I’ve heard of it.” And the last, it seems. It’s worth noting Johnson was still Foreign Secretary at the time. Unfortunately, the interview took place before Wallpaper-gate, so I can’t ask Duncan about the refurbishments to the family flat in No 11 Downing Street. Although I do ask him how he thinks Johnson will, eventually, depart from No 10. Duncan replies he sometimes thinks, “We’ll just wake up one day to, ‘I’ve done my bit, I’ve had enough. Bye-bye.’ [Johnson] wants to go and make some money because all the papers are saying he’s short of money and we all know the family picture. So I don’t know.”
It was Duncan who made headlines himself in May 2009 when it was revealed as part of the MPs expenses scandal that he’d claimed more than £4,000 for his garden. Later that summer he was secretly recorded by independent film-maker, Heydon Prowse saying MPs were “treated like shit” and “forced to live on rations”. This lapse at a time when they public were baying for MPs’ blood saw him sacked by Cameron from the Tory front bench. Which seems ironic now in view of Greensill. My view of Duncan from the dairies and our chat is that failings of virtue aren’t likely to be artfully concealed. He likes to talk freely, saying at least once during our chat, “This is off the record”, and makes an unabashed case for lobbying as a normal part of the political process. You can see how true schemers, who keep their powder dry and their motives concealed under a carapace of populist statements and brown-nosing, would drive him round the bend.
You get the distinct feeling he’s glad to be out of politics, lobbing a few stones at the Westminster greenhouse. He says people come up to him and say, “‘Aren’t they a shower? Isn’t it the worst Cabinet we’ve ever known?’ This is what people volunteer as their opinion. Which tells me there must be something in it.” And it’s fair to say Duncan anticipated the disillusionment. He resigned as a minister of state in July 2019 in protest of Boris Johnson’s winning the contest to lead the Conservative party. Later, when Johnson forms his first Cabinet, the diarist notes: “It’s a massacre, replacing the Sensibles with the Despicables. It seems anyone who was not pro-Brexit has been culled.” His end of the year thought in 2019 as the journals draw to close is: “I am not in the business of betraying the young who are looking to the future in order to please the old who are looking to the past.”
Also, he has the sanctuary of his happy Rutland home, partner James and their adored Cockapoo, Noodle. When I ask him if it’s true that the couple never argue, Duncan turns his head and says, “He just walked in the door!” The huge smile on the diarist’s face is infectious and he says, “Darling, I’m being asked at the end of the interview how we can go so long without having an argument?” James says amiably, “I have no idea,” before bobbing round in front of the camera to say “Hello!” He’s every bit as handsome as the press photos and I have to say the duo make a dashing couple. There’s a moving passage towards the end of Duncan’s diaries when he notes 24 out of 100 new Tory MPs after the December 2019 election are LGBT and wonder if they were aware of what it had taken to “make that a positive news story and not a cause for resignation.”
When I read through my transcript after the interview I think of that other great test of people. Not whether you’d like them in your holiday house, but whether you’d “be down in the ditch with them,” (meaning WWI trenches), or trust them to watch your back in a police state. That, in my own view, reverses Duncan’s assessment of PMs. I’d trust Brown and May over Blair and Johnson any day of the week. But I’d probably have Duncan in my villa or my ditch – so long as he also bought James and Noodle.
Alan Duncan is a Conservative Party politician who was Minister of State for International Development from 2010 to 2014, and Minister of Sate for Europe and the Americas from 2016 to 2019. His book “In the Thick of It” is published by William Collins