In The Thick Of It: The Private Diaries Of A Minister
Alan Duncan William Collins £25
Another week, another big fat book of ‘waspish’ political diaries by a figure most people would struggle to put a face to.
A few months ago we had the ‘waspish’ Diary Of An MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire. And a few months before that, we were treated to the ‘waspish’ memoirs of the former Speaker, John Bercow.
All three authors specialise in unsubtle abuse of bigger fish. Thus Bercow calls Theresa May ‘dull as ditchwater’ and David Cameron ‘deeply snobbish’, and Sasha Swire calls May ‘humourless’ and Bercow ‘revolting’, while Alan Duncan declares that May has had a ‘charisma bypass’ and that Bercow is ‘an angst-ridden oddball’.
In his introduction, Alan Duncan (above, at the Conservative Party Conference in 2009) explains that he began keeping a diary when he became a Minister in 2010
And so it goes on. Needless to say, in this claustrophobic world there will always come a time when two political diarists find themselves together in the same room, each busily storing up insults against the other, to jot down later.
In her diary entry for December 11, 2019, Sasha Swire notes: ‘Towards the end of dinner, I ask Alan Duncan how he is enjoying retirement, and if his diaries are coming out. He replies: “What a good idea.” Then after dinner, his waspish husband James, who I have always been unsure about, darts over, all front-fanged, and attacks me for being negative about Alan on my Twitter account.’
Turn to Duncan’s diaries and you find his account of the same dinner: ‘The Swires were there too, and Sasha was rather silly. I knew from Hugo [Swire’s husband] that she has a publishing deal for her diaries, and when he asked me if I do, I accurately answered “No”. She then asked me the same question, and got the same answer. She then went to ask James separately. Always ahead of the game, he gave her quite a b****cking for being so underhand, and then asked her why she was always so vitriolic on the (anonymous) MPWife Twitter account. “How did you know that?” she asked. He’d got her! Her lapse was a total inadvertent admission that “MPWife” is Sasha Swire.’
The two accounts of the same conversation are different. Which of them is telling the truth? Possibly neither. All one can say for sure is that they are both shamelessly self-serving.
In his introduction, Duncan explains that he began keeping a diary when he became a Minister in 2010, in order to ‘emote, to download and to vent my feelings… Instead of briefing the press, I wrote it down.’
For ‘instead of’, read ‘as well as’: Duncan has long had a reputation as a blabbermouth, and his diaries are full of gossipy lunches with political journalists.
The book is subtitled ‘the private diaries of a Minister’, but they give every indication of having been composed with publication in mind. For example, at one point he writes of ‘Yemen, in which I have had a 30-year interest’, and at another of ‘my long-standing PR friend Andrew Gifford’.
If these were intended as private diaries, would he really need to remind himself of his interest in the Yemen, or who Gifford is?
Ever since the tremendous success of Alan Clark’s witty diaries in the 1990s, lesser political diarists have felt it expedient to pepper their texts with abuse against their colleagues.
The trouble is that Clark had a natural gift for comedy, while his imitators are just plodders. Duncan’s insults are hand-medown and interchangeable. Bercow is ‘an uppity little man’, Mark Francois ‘a horrid little man’, Tobias Ellwood ‘nuts’, Michael Gove ‘a whacky weirdo’, Tom Tugendhat a ‘cocky little tosser’, Dominic Raab ‘a selfimportant humourless bore’, Priti Patel ‘a nothing person’, Emily Thornberry ‘a graceless frump’, Theresa May ‘rather leaden’, and so on.
If you put the names and the insults into separate boxes, you would find it very hard to match them up.
This deficiency in what Auberon Waugh used to call ‘the vituperative arts’ becomes particularly pitiful when you can’t picture who on earth he is ranting against, among them various unknown bigwigs in his Rutland constituency.
Thus we hear of ‘the unpleasant Geoffrey Pointon – fat, ugly and 80’, and ‘the snide and distasteful Christine Emmett’.
This might be less damaging if Duncan revealed some sort of hinterland beyond the Palace of Westminster. But his sporadic glimpses of what an outsider might call ‘real life’ are banal, to say the least.
On Saturday January 9, 2016, ‘Mike and Anne Eley from next door come for dinner. Slow-cooked shin of beef. Rather tasty.’ Three hundred pages later he enjoys ‘a delicious dinner of swordfish and pork loin cutlets’.
Once or twice, members of his family merit a nod: quite nice for them, of course, but meaningless for the rest of us. ‘Nephew Ben’s wife Dee has had a baby daughter, Nualla, a sister for three-year-old Hewey,’ reads one entry.
IT’S A FACT
Diarist Samuel Pepys kept an unusual pet at his lodgings in Westminster: a lion, which he described as ‘good company’.
The diaries begin in 2016 and necessarily centre around Brexit. Duncan had long been a vociferous Eurosceptic. ‘As 2016 came around, I still expected to join the Leave campaign, and began discussions to do so,’ he explains in his introduction.
Sure enough, his entry for January 24, 2016 finds him ‘agonising over how strongly – and indeed whether – I should campaign in favour of leaving the EU’.
However, by March 13 he has changed his mind. ‘So that’s it – I’ve made my mind up… our interests are best served by remaining part of the EU.’ From then on he campaigns with all the zeal of a convert, forgetting all previous doubts.
After the vote in June goes in favour of Brexit, he despairs: ‘I just know the rest of the world will be looking at the UK and thinking, “What on earth have they just done to themselves?”’
Ever the kingmaker, once Cameron is out of Downing Street, he switches allegiance. On June 27, 2016, he pays a visit to Theresa May. ‘I told her, “I’ve only got one thing to say – you must stand. I’m right behind you, go for it!”’
All very well, but he then adds, sarkily, ‘She was pretty wooden, as she always is.’
If ever Alan Duncan says he’s right behind you, you’d do well to call security. When Theresa May is elected Leader, he texts her ‘Yippee x 1000! I am on the edge of joyful tears.’
But his elation is short-lived. ‘She is a cardboard cut-out,’ he concludes, a year later.
In September 2017 he complains that Boris Johnson, at that time his boss in the Foreign Office, is ‘a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon … an international stain on our reputation … a selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot’.
But then – hey presto! – in under a year, on July 9, 2018, he has changed his mind, at least in public, issuing a statement saying, ‘I had two amazing years in the Foreign Office working with Boris Johnson. He was and remains a larger-than-life figure, one of politics’ great characters … His sheer force of personality was a massive diplomatic asset.’
Two months later he about-turns on his about-turn, tweeting that a rude comment by Boris against Theresa May ‘marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics. I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson’.
Mystic Meg he is not.
An inveterate texter and tweeter, he then eagerly chronicles the tweet’s rising popularity. ‘Views of the tweet have hit a million,’ he writes the next day. Five days later the figure ‘now stands at 2,012,408’.
Unstinting in his abuse, Alan Duncan reserves most of his praise for himself. He clearly sees himself as a bit of a wag. ‘… I quipped instantaneously,’ is the sort of phrase with which he likes to round off a sentence.
People are always ‘chuckling’ at his jokes. An appearance at the Dispatch Box, is ‘a triumph’, and when the Trade Minister texts him from Turkey to say, ‘they LOVE you here… You have done a brilliant job…’, he pops that into his diary, too.
Throughout the 500-odd pages he excitedly chronicles his every appearance in front of the cameras. ‘I managed to secure an extensive media round: CNN, Channel 4, ITV, Sky, BBC News, LBC – the works,’ reads a typical entry.
But what was it all for? Though he was always on telly, he failed to make much of an impression. On Tuesday I told a worldly friend I was reading the diaries of Sir Alan Duncan.
‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘you mean the former Blue Peter presenter?’