As a budding political apparatchik, my first job out of university was as a junior parliamentary assistant to Alan Duncan MP. Working for him was never taxing because it was never boring.
Nicknamed ‘Hunky Dunky’, he was well known in the Tory fraternity. Too young to be a grandee and too old to be a rising star, he occupied a special space in the parliamentary party, never part of a clique yet consistently present during his 27 years in parliament. We’d often remark — to his annoyance — that he was the Chips Channon of his generation, since both often ended up on the wrong side of the winning team. How apt, then, that the updated Channon diaries and Duncan’s own should appear within weeks of each other.
In the Thick of It documents the Conservative party’s relapse into its masochistic tendency: the years 2015 to 2019 when the Brexit wars raged. Much has already been written about the contempt in which Duncan held certain colleagues, and perhaps, like Channon, he should have kept quiet until more time had passed. But where would be the fun in that?
Duncan, newly returned to the front bench after throwing himself into Theresa May’s leadership campaign, had been rewarded with his dream job as deputy foreign secretary. Of course he was deputising for Boris Johnson, a pairing which had all the makings of an odd-couple sitcom: Duncan, with his pristine suits, attention to detail and fastidiousness, pitched alongside a bumptious, lovable, unkempt rogue.
The diaries are thoughtful, but can be brutal. Duncan views some colleagues as ‘idiots’, ‘thickos’ and ‘nothings’. He rages against injustices in Palestine, bemoans the UK’s loss of diplomatic standing in the world and despairs over the lack of basic courtesy in parliament. Never tribally political, having enjoyed a safe seat for his entire career, he is more interested in the battle of ideas, evidenced by his intellectual fisticuffs with David Cameron when deciding whether to Leave or Remain.
The relentlessness of ministerial life is well captured. Duncan flits from South America, where, in a wine cellar, he begins negotiations with the Argentines to increase the number of flights to the Falklands, to witnessing the dressing-down given by Johnson to the Russian ambassador in the wake of the Salisbury poisonings — a rare proud moment shared with Johnson in an otherwise dysfunctional relationship.
He is a serious minister and relishes the art of diplomacy, managing a number of delicate discussions with notably difficult regimes, among them Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Trump’s America. Diplomatic receptions and high-level meetings are noted in detail during the implosion of government, with failing Brexit negotiations and constant challenges to the Conservative leadership.
The book contains deep thought about Britain’s long-term foreign policy objectives, enlivened by highly amusing recollections. On one occasion at the FCO, Johnson remarks that Putin expects everyone to come and kiss his ring. Duncan helpfully clarifies the ensuing merriment: ‘Foreign Secretary — 10 per cent will think Pope; 90 per cent will think anus.’
Duncan is an odd mixture of propriety, informality and emotion, a politician who wears his heart on his sleeve. He ‘blubs’ in films and sends admonishing messages when he’s annoyed. The former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan is ticked off for criticising May’s leather trousers; lobby journalists have their ears bent when stories appear that annoy him. He doesn’t shy away from sharing his feelings or his knowledge, in particular offering ‘teach-ins’ to newbies about the Middle East, his area of expertise.
The oddity of combining a ministerial role with constituency duties is perfectly illustrated when, after a meeting with HM the Queen and the King of Bahrain, Duncan ‘mused at the contrast within my last 48 hours, switching from a lovely encounter with two crowned heads to railing in front of a camera about rusting metal poles’. He shows that politicians are human, betraying a weakness for a pretty face, fussing like a helicopter parent over Noodle, his cockapoo, and counting his blessings for James Dunseath, the husband in whose company he seems happiest.
Duncan was a moderniser in the Conservative party of the 1990s, but time has rendered him old-fashioned. He is opinionated, and occasionally the fury bursts from the page; but for nearly a decade he mostly quietly and loyally got on with his ministerial job.
These diaries are honest, and any of Duncan’s friends will instantly recognise the authenticity of his views. They document an important time in British politics, but are a long lament about the declining state of British diplomacy and the quality of parliament. The world as Duncan once saw it no longer exists, and a political era ends with his generation’s departure from parliament. The book somewhat poignantly closes just as the first UK cases of Covid-19 emerge — and the world changes again.
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