Alan Duncan: Gordon 'pinched' his idea, and now the 'prat' is 'stuffing' the economy
Meet the Tory frontbencher who is business-friendly, media-friendly but very unfriendly to the Chancellor
Sunday 14 May 2006
Prudence is a slag, Gordon Brown is a prat (in part for making prudence a slag) and the modern Conservatives are the new apostles. So goes the gospel according to St Duncan, the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary. "I was John the Baptist, chewing on locusts," jokes Alan Duncan about his time in the last Conservative government. "But we are the apostles now."
He was, in 1993, the first politician to advocate making the Bank of England independent, he claims - only to have his idea first ignored by the Major government and then, four years later, stolen by the new Labour Chancellor. Waving a dusty pamphlet from the think-tank Demos in which he argued for central bank independence - arguably the cornerstone of the economic stability that Labour has presided over - he complains: "This sat on Gordon Brown's desk for two years, and he pinched everything from it. Make sure you print that."
The lone voice in the desert is now a lead singer in David Cameron's Tory chorus. The first candidate to declare in last year's leadership race - though he dropped out a week later citing lack of support - he is as media-friendly as the man who won the contest. "Yes, we like having our picture taken," he tells the photographer, before asking if it's all right to have his picture taken without a jacket. "Jacketless yes, but not shirtless," he jokes.
Duncan is in a good mood. He has just come out of a pow-wow with Cameron after what he describes as another drubbing for the Government during Prime Minister's questions. The disorderly Cabinet reshuffle was, for him, a hoot. He sent a note to the new Trade and Industry Secretary, Alistair Darling (who had previously been Duncan's counterpart at the transport department) saying "Not you again". Darling's predecessor, Alan Johnson, was only in the job for a year.
Duncan is less pleased with the press coverage of Cameron's speech about Bhs "sexualising" children's underwear (Bhs owner Philip Green later pointed out that the range in question - "Little Miss Naughty", which included padded bras - was withdrawn in 2003, weeks after its launch, because of complaints from parents). One headline, from the Financial Times, reads: "Cameron picks fight with big business". "That's nonsense," Duncan fumes.
"David is saying if you don't have business, you don't have schools and hospitals. But we want business to be responsible. If some people get a little bit unsettled, so be it."
It says something that a senior Conservative figure is having to refute suggestions that his party is anti-business. You get the impression that this may be Cameron's intention. "Our success in the '80s converted all our opponents to market economics. But in the 10 years following, we allowed ourselves to be branded by Labour as rampant capitalists who didn't care about society."
However, in a month when UK companies have announced over 10,000 job losses, shouldn't Cameron be focusing on something more relevant than a discontinued clothing range from 2003? "Bhs should join Business in the Community," says Duncan, referring to the charity behind the meeting at which Cameron delivered his Bhs comments. But surely Green is hardly likely to sign up for a tongue lashing from politicians? Duncan disagrees: "Come on. They will get an enhanced reputation. That's a good thing to be looking for. That adds shareholder value." He admits, though, that this is very hard to measure.
Duncan seems to share Cameron's almost evangelical belief that companies will voluntarily become better corporate citizens. "Brand image and reputation matter in the modern world. Let's make it a public issue so any company will be named by their performance in terms of social responsibility. If we don't like something, we will say so."
This sounds not only woolly but rather like a plan for more Labour-style red tape - something the Conservatives have promised to cut. Duncan denies this. He struggles to give specifics on how his party's approach to business would be different from Labour's (an area under consideration by one of Cameron's many review teams), but says the Tories want to make it easier to set up businesses and to employ people. They would also consider cutting business rates.
His views on the Chancellor are clear, though. He points to a recent newspaper headline - "Gordon Brown calls for global action on oil prices".
"Prat," he responds. "Fat lot of good that would do. He's the man who is making us more dependent on global oil by slapping £2bn of taxes on the North Sea. That's not very bright."
Duncan doesn't like Brown much at all. "I don't think this has been a prudent government," he says, referring to the Chancellor's promise to replace the boom and bust of the past with a stable fiscal policy. "Prudence has become a bit of a slag." Ouch.
One of the other policies being pored over by the Conservatives is energy - an area in which Duncan reckons Labour's efforts are farcical. "Having an energy review is air cover for the decision Tony Blair has already taken to go with nuclear power. The Liberal Democrats are saying no to nuclear, Blair is saying yes - we are the only ones treating it with an open mind." But he refuses to divulge his party's thinking.
Duncan, a former oil trader, is big on "green" phrases: "It's important we can embrace renewable technology." Yet he doesn't seem to be living the soundbite. He isn't planning to put a wind turbine on his roof, as Cameron has, but jokes that he might put one in his paddock. He sold his Range Rover six months ago and replaced it with a "small BMW" ("but it's not a sports car") rather than a more environmentally friendly hybrid.
He is dismissive of press attempts to discredit Cameron's cycle trips to work (often followed by a car with his papers and shoes). "The ingenuity and sense of humour of journalists never ceases to amaze me. Most of us can't survive without a car."
The chirpy MP, who is confident the Conservatives will win the next election, has one fear about the future. "What worries me is that, just as we are knocking on the door of Number 10, we will inherit an economy right-royally stuffed by Gordon Brown." And then it might be the day of the locusts again.
Born 31 March 1957
Merchant Taylors' school; St John's College, Oxford
1981-82: Kennedy School, Harvard University
1979-81: graduate trainee, Shell International Petroleum
1982-88: oil trader at Marc Rich
1988-93: self-employed broker
1992: elected as MP
1993-94: private secretary to minister in Department of Health
1995-97: private secretary to Conservative Party chairman
1997-98: vice-chairman of Conservative Party
1998-99: spokesman on health
1999-2001: spokesman on trade and industry
2001-2003: spokesman on foreign affairs
2003-04: shadow secretary for Constitutional Affairs
2004-05: shadow secretary for International Development
2005: shadow secretary for Trade and Industry
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