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Noises off: The Duncan Diaries are more amusing, and more valuable, than one might have expected.


In The Thick Of It: The Private Diaries of a Minister by Alan Duncan

This book is more amusing, and more valuable, than one might have expected. The serialisation in The Daily Mail gave the impression that it was no more than page after page of petulant abuse of colleagues by a touchy and disappointed man.

There is certainly any amount of that, some of it very funny. One running joke – no joke to him – is Duncan’s row with Frances, Dowager Duchess of Rutland, who is the President of his Association (Rutland and Melton), a devout Leaver, and furious with him for coming out (despite being a long-standing Eurosceptic) for Remain.

She considers him appallingly rude to her, and he considers her appallingly rude to him. “Oh you are so disgusting!” she shouts at him in the Falcon Hotel in Uppingham.

The Duchess summons him to her house below Belvoir Castle, and demands:

“Why has it taken four months for you to come and explain yourself?”

“I don’t consider that I have anything to explain. What is it that I am expected to explain to you?”

“You know. If you don’t then you should. I put it in the letter.”

“It is a highly offensive letter. Why did you write it when we had agreed to meet this weekend?”

“I didn’t believe you would come.”

“But I said I would call you, and I did, and I am here… Your letter is the rudest and most insulting I have ever received from a fellow Conservative. You seem to think that the only opinion that matters is your own. You go to political meetings with UKIP, which I consider unbecoming for an Association President…”

This could be from a novel by Trollope, or a story by Lewis Carroll. There is a Gilbert and Sullivan element to Duncan. He leads a comic opera kind of a life, though all too often he leaves out the jokes, indiscretions and betrayals which a great diarist would record as a matter of course.

It is no use, indeed an insult, to the reader to be assured that “Time with Mandelson is never dull”, or Sir John Major “loves a good mischievous gossip”, without being told the stories which would prove this to be true.

The Diaries run from January 2016 to January 2020, and historians will turn to them to see what Duncan, who served for most of that period as Minister of State for Europe and the Americas at the Foreign Office, has to say of Boris Johnson, who like Duncan arrived at the Foreign Office in July 2016, but resigned after only two years.

A glance at the index entry for Johnson, which runs to three and a half columns, indicates that the coverage will not be uniformly flattering:

lack of seriousness and application, 4, 134, 140, 160, 163-4, 171, 178, 202, 217, 299, 383, 508; manoeuvrings for leadership [about the same number of references]…self-serving ambition…lack of grip on detail…bluff-and-bluster routine…

But that is only part of the story. In some ways, Duncan’s complimentary remarks about Johnson are more enlightening, for they demonstrate the latter’s remarkable capacity to win round, even impress, critics who have lost all patience with him.

In his introduction, Duncan writes of Johnson:

“What frustrated me most of all, and still does, is that he has the makings of an exceptionally good politician – one with moderate, liberal instincts and a gift for rallying an audience. If he could channel his energies into devising a compelling and optimistic vision of the future direction of the country, and use it to consign the unpleasant divisiveness of Brexit to the past, he would be a formidable Prime Minister. I still hold out hope.”

On 12 March 2018, the Russian Ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, is summoned to the Foreign Office to be addressed by Johnson, in the presence of Duncan and one British official, about the Salisbury nerve gas attack:

“Yakovenko and his deputy came in, all jaunty and smiling as if nothing had happened. Boris…with fabulous indignation verging on anger, told him in no uncertain terms how unacceptable it was to violate our security, try to murder someone on British soil, breach a highly important international convention, etc. It was a deliciously delivered dressing down, in response to which the dumb-struck Yakovenko couldn’t say anything, and just left.

“Well done, Boris! I felt genuinely proud of him. 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. It was a magic moment, which shows that little can beat Boris at his best.”

The good impression does not last. In September 2018, two months after resigning as Foreign Secretary, Johnson accuses Theresa May of wrapping a “suicide vest” round Britain and handing the detonator to Brussels.

Duncan goes for him on Twitter:

“For Boris to say that the PM’s view is like that of a suicide bomber is too much. This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics. I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later.”

That outburst gets a lot of coverage, but is not entirely sincere. Duncan confides to his diary that it is “rather hyperbolic, but it’s the only way to get noticed”, and a couple of days later writes a note to Johnson assuring him that “It’s not personal”, but “Noises off are constantly undermining our negotiating position”.

Johnson at length replies:

“Dear Alan, On the contrary I fear it is the noises off, as you call them, that have been the only thing to stiffen the spine of our negotiations and postpone the day of abject capitulation! Boris.”

So they don’t disagree with each other quite as fundamentally as one might guess from the coverage. They disagree about tactics, and the acceptable bounds of political language.

Duncan supports May, but laments that she has “zero empathy” and is incapable of connecting with her own MPs, or indeed of thanking Duncan for his support. On 20th March 2019 he writes of her:

“The PM’s performance at PMQs was construed as an attack on Parliament for its failure to reach a decision. It went down like a bag of cold sick. She is there because replacing her would prove so chaotic, but in truth she has only grudging support and there is no affection for her. She’s like a single flaking old pit prop: everyone knows it will collapse, but dares not touch it to wedge in a replacement in case the roof falls in first.”

As Minister of State, Duncan is responsible, he tells us, for 77 countries. He has a deep knowledge of the Middle East, having worked for much of his life as an oil trader, but he never really gives us a proper feeling for what the top figures from countries like Oman, with close links to Britain, are like.

Just as one thinks he is in danger of becoming bland, he reminds us that he is capable of thinking for himself. This must be one of the few books to have appeared in recent years to contain two favourable, albeit fleeting, references to the Duke of York.





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