In the Thick of It by Alan Duncan review – Johnson is a ‘buffoon’, Gove a ‘freak’

Gaby Hinsliff
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Serious times call for serious people. If living through a global pandemic had somehow failed to underline that, then the sight of violence returning to the streets of Northern Ireland in recent weeks should. The argument for grownups in the room could hardy seem clearer. But until recently you might have got good odds against Alan Duncan emerging at its standard bearer.

Still, cometh the hour, cometh the diarist. In the Thick of It, this former Tory minister’s account of the four years running up to Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019, initially grabbed the headlines thanks to the sheer gleeful bitchiness of the insults littered throughout. But there’s a more serious message at the heart of this book, reeking as it does of decline and despair.

“Parliament is dead. Government is bureaucratic. Political leadership barely exists. We are stagnant and ossified,” Duncan writes at one low point for Theresa May, whom he had supported for the leadership. By 2019, he thinks the Conservative party is visibly disintegrating; poisoned by Brexit, eating itself from within, increasingly incapable of grappling with the challenges facing the country. “Half of my fellow MPs are intolerant ideologues and we just don’t share the same principles. They are throwbacks and nationalists … their actions will diminish Britain,” he writes in April, resolving to quit parliament. In December he did just that, disenchanted after 27 years as an MP.

If Duncan does know of some smoking gun, or diplomatic disaster behind the scenes, then he isn’t telling

Many readers will be drawn by the tantalising promise of revelations from Duncan’s spell as Johnson’s “pooper scooper”, or more formally as his deputy at the Foreign Office, resigned to sweeping up the mess the then foreign secretary left behind. He paints a withering picture of a man apparently liked but never respected by Foreign Office civil servants – they knew too much about the complexities of Brexit to be fobbed off with waffle about thinking positively. To Duncan, Johnson’s arguments for how Britain can flourish even after a hard Brexit are “puerile junk … that he should believe what he has written is credible is disturbing enough but he probably does”. Worse still: “Perhaps he knows it is simplistic nonsense and that it is designed to appeal to Tory activists to serve his own ambition.” He depicts his boss as an “embarrassing buffoon with an untidy mind”, a stain on Britain’s reputation.

Yet there is little new scandal of substance here. If Duncan does know of some smoking gun, or diplomatic disaster behind the scenes, then he isn’t telling. As with all ministerial diaries, this one was vetted, and one gets a faint occasional sense of something missing in the background – if only an explanation of why the author spends so much time in the Gulf state of Oman.

Nor is Duncan a wholly disinterested witness. He is a man whose time never really came, or not perhaps in the way he believed it should have, for one of many things he takes seriously is himself. After making his money in oil trading, he entered parliament in 1992 and slogged away on successive opposition and government front benches without ever quite reaching the very top. By the time the diary begins in 2016, he is a backbencher again, sitting through meetings on reducing unnecessary road signs, which is “one of my passions”. (More than once, the book teeters close to Alan Partridge territory.) But then Cameron loses the Brexit referendum and resigns, at which point Duncan charms his way back in by enthusiastically backing May, and being rewarded with a job in the Foreign Office. Nonetheless, he has now reached that awkward stage of surviving long enough to see younger rivals overtake him. Even his old intern, Julian Smith, is now chief whip and sometimes too busy to return his calls promptly.

The bitter twist meanwhile is that Duncan himself was a Eurosceptic, wooed hard by Vote Leave in 2016. If he’d succumbed, instead of backing remain on the rather prescient grounds that Brexiters couldn’t convincingly explain how Brexit was supposed to work, perhaps he’d have been in the cabinet too. Instead he is doomed to watch what he regards as lesser talents climb high enough to mess things up. Some of Duncan’s greatest vitriol is reserved for those who leapfrogged him into cabinet. Gavin Williamson is a “venomous self-seeking little shit”, Priti Patel a “brassy monster”, and Michael Gove an “unctuous freak”. Duncan has warm praise for many of his civil servants and for Jeremy Hunt, who succeeded Johnson as foreign secretary and is portrayed here as the thoughtful leader the Tories never had. But again and again he condemns pro-Brexit MPs as either thick, swivel-eyed, or at best unwilling to admit that there are no simple answers to complex questions.

Duncan’s claim that he kept the diary as a way of letting off steam in private rather than venting to journalists will surprise many journalists, especially the ones whose meetings with him are detailed here with a candour bound to leave some blushing. Nor is self-awareness his strongest suit. One moment he is privately savaging Gove’s “creepy and arse-licking” newspaper interview of Donald Trump in his diary, the next telling Gove it was “quite a coup”. And his evident scorn for so much of his own party can make for a sour read in places, relieved towards the end only by unexpectedly touching vignettes of domestic life with his evidently beloved husband James.

But what saves the book from descending into bitterness and pomposity, despite flashes of both, is the feeling that Duncan frankly has a point; that after four years of purging remain supporters from the Tory ranks, what’s left is hardly a government of titans. And as he notes in the foreword, winning a majority has not solved the fundamental problem of reconciling their promises with reality. We may be in the thick of it for a while yet.

In the Thick of It: The Private Diaries of a Minister is published by William Collins (£25). To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.