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

1 May

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.

After the Duke

10 Apr

Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, as they both later became, married in the wake of wartime – during 1947.  She came to the throne after the death of her father six years later.  To have any real memory of his reign now, one would have been roughly ten years old then, at least.

A small boy or girl of that age in 1953 would be the better part of 75 now. One has to be a quarter of a century old, or older, to remember well a time before her reign.

In other words, most of us have got used to the longest-serving monarch in not only British but also English history.  “May the king live forever,” the choir sings in that great coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest.  We enthusiastically join the chorus: “Amen, amen, allelluia, allueluia – amen”.

Spouses often survive the deaths of their other halves for many years, and naturally we hope that the Queen will be one of them.  Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.

But either way, that fervent wish in Handel’s chorus can’t come about.  The king doesn’t live together.  So as Andrew Gimson wrote on this site yesterday, we must all – whether older or younger than 75 – begin to prepare ourselves for the fact that the Duke’s death is a sign that this Elizabethan era is nearing its end.

We may not be prepared for it.  For with the possible exception of a few tempestous days in 1997, in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, and for perhaps a period during the 1960s, to which the making of Royal Family was a response, the Queen and the monarchy have been extremely popular.

The Queen, overwhelmingly so: only ten per cent of those YouGov poll have a negative view of her; the monarchy, almost as much: only 14 per cent want no member of the Royal Family to succeed her.

This monarchical popularity is less unusual than we may think.  Indeed, the very idea may make no sense at all before the coming of age of mass enfranchisment – say, roughly the time of Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act.  Since then, neither Edward VII, George V nor George VI, the Queen’s father, experienced serious public hostility.

Even the king missing from that list, Edward VIII, seems to have divided opinion.  At the time of his abdication, respectable opinion seems to have been against him and unrespectable opinion for.  The latter is sometimes greater and wiser than the former (though not the second in this case and probably not the first either).

That leaves Queen Victoria, who undoubtedly did become unpopular for a period.  Nonetheless, it can’t be assumed that the opposite will always be the case for our future monarchs, just because it has been so with this one.

The Duke of Edinburgh didn’t shy away from making his views known, and was no less loved for it.  Although they weren’t party political ones – he was scrupulously neutral in that way – they did have a certain flavour, and its safe to say that he was no enthusiast for the big state.

The Queen balanced his outspokenness out (as so many spouses in so many marriages balance each other out) by expressing no views at all – or, rather, by expressing what our times call values and previous ones would have called virtues: stoicism, duty, service, fortitude, unselfishness, self-sacrifice.

When the time comes, the Prince of Wales, who undoubtedly “has views”, will face having to do the same, and so leaving behind – stepping beyond? – his take on the environment, architecture, education, medicine, and so on.

Perhaps our sense that he will need to do so is wrong, and we misjudge the mood of the times.  More to the point, he seems to be making that change already – pushing, for example, for fewer members of the Royal Family to be on the taxpayer-funded payroll.

But it is only common sense to suggest that the safest course to follow in due course will be his mother’s.  Are we getting ahead of ourselves, never mind the rest of the country, in looking forward in this way?  Is it out place to wonder if the next monarch will be less popular than this one during the course of his reign?

Our case for the defence is that the Duke of Edinburgh himself always seemed to be looking forward, not back: indeed, he was the original moderniser of the Royal Family during this reign.

He dispensed with powdered hair for footmen; put in intercoms; shut down a palace kitchen set up to feed the Royal Family only; set up new, informal lunches for the Queen to meet people from new, broader backgrounds; was instrumental in planning Royal Family (not one of his better ideas).

Some of passions preceded his oldest son’s: the environment, inter-faith.  It was the Duke of Edinburgh who reportedly first called the Royal Family “The Firm”.  In seeking to modernise it by reforming it, his son is showing that, in one telling sense at least, he’s a chip off the old block.

So we make no apology in warning supporters of our monarchy to prepare for rougher water.  For although the Queen is extremely popular and the monarchy scarcely less so, this isn’t always true of all members of the Royal Family.

But rather than linger over the mistakes of the Duke of York and the plight of the Duke of Sussex, we end on an optimistic note, in keeping we hope with the Duke of Edinburgh’s character.  Monarchy is the United Kingdom’s default setting.

It was England’s before that, when the Commonwealth ran out of legitimacy, and Charles II was invited to take up his throne.  Or when, in 1689, it passed from a Catholic monarch to Protestant ones.

Or when a woman who was originally fifth in line to the throne, and whose mother was ready to govern as regent instead of her, began her reign less than a month after her eighteenth birthday.  That was Queen Victoria, the great-great grandmother of both the present Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

We wrote earlier that the king doesn’t live forever.  But that isn’t the full story.  For as the cry on the death of a monarch has it: “the king is dead. Long live the king!”