Comment: William's clumsy friend-Profile: Alan duncan

Gaffes are by no means rare for Hague's closest adviser, writes Paul Routledge

Paul Routledge
Saturday 20 September 1997 23:02

It wasn't Alan Duncan's week. The tabloids, eager to write him off, told us that it started badly... and fell away. Duncan, who is press adviser to William Hague, was blamed for the leader's gaffe on Breakfast with Frost last Sunday when he unwisely accused Tony Blair of making political capital from the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

One member of the Shadow Cabinet described Duncan's latest political standing in lavatorial language: "Margaret Thatcher said `every Tory leader should have a Willie'; our leader has a prick." The contrast between a distinguished deputy prime minister like Lord Whitelaw and the man whose principal credential is that he was Hague's campaign chief during the leadership election only three months ago was hurtful, but they do have something in common: both men have shown themselves willing to subordinate personal ambition in the interests of party.

Whitelaw was a cautious, steady-as-she-goes figure rich in the resource Conservatives call "bottom". Duncan is clever and energetic, but he is also hyperactive, impetuous and a libertarian of the hard-right. He was the prime suspect for Hague's gaffe. It did not matter that the Tory leader is perfectly capable of making his own mistakes, and owned up to this particular one at last Wednesday's Shadow Cabinet meeting. The Tory old guard wanted blood, and some of Duncan's was duly spilled when he was deprived of his hands-on public relations role and relegated to a more ambiguous "strategic" advisory role in the party's high command.

DUNCAN, whose height (he claims 5ft 6in, but he is exaggerating) and style have prompted sobriquets like "the bonsai Heseltine", is putting the best face on this, telling friends he will be able to think more long- term now that he is only vice-chairman of the party and the leader's parliamentary political secretary, a title invented for him. He remains the Conservatives' Peter Mandelson - and that is a hard act to live up to.

For now, he is a casualty of the war at Smith Square between Hague's generation and old farts like Lord Parkinson who regard Duncan as a bumptious upstart whose undue influence on the leader needs downsizing. "Duncan's still in his training wheels, but he'll learn," says a former minister disdainfully. On past form, that is an accurate prediction. It is much too soon to write his political obituary, though quite how his exotic views could ever become Conservative policy beggars belief.

In his manifesto, Saturn's Children, published in 1995, Duncan called for legalisation of the distribution and consumption of all dangerous drugs "or at the very least decriminalising them". He suggested "complete state disengagement from education" within 30 years, privatisation of hospitals, roads, and housing, and the ending of payments to the EU. He is implacably opposed to the single European currency.

Duncan really does believe that the idea of community is "either a meaningless metaphysical abstraction, a banal shorthand description of existing social realities, or a euphemism for state power". He is scarcely less scathing about democracy, which he insists is "an ally not of liberty but of equality".

Alan James Carter Duncan was born in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, in 1957, the second of three brothers. His father was an RAF Wing Commander and his mother a teacher. The family lived abroad for much of his childhood, in Gibraltar, Norway and Italy, where his father was on Nato postings, and it was the despised state that paid Alan's private school fees. He attended Beechwood Park prep school in Markyate, Hertfordshire, and then Merchant Taylors' School in Northwood, Middlesex. He was head boy at both.

If anything, the Duncans were Liberals. His grandfather was a friend of Sir Archibald Sinclair, a leading Liberal of the pre-war years, and in 1970 the young Duncan stood as Liberal candidate in a mock general election at school, and was soundly thrashed. The experience opened his eyes. The precocious boy began devouring books on politics, and decided he was a Conservative after all. With a characteristic desire to shock, he later said he had been a Tory "ever since my balls dropped", which we can date as being in 1972 when he joined the Young Conservatives.

At St John's College, Oxford (he read PPE) Duncan aligned himself with the young fogeys of the hard right. He was convinced that Britain was "crumbling" under the weight of "creeping collectivism", an omnibus term for everything from motorway cameras to social workers. He was President of the Oxford Union in the Thatcherites' annus mirabilis of 1979, and he got to know William Hague on return visits to Oxford. The two hit it off instantly, and Hague became a kind of camp-follower. He shared a flat in Battersea with Duncan, and, like his mentor, became a graduate trainee at Shell Oil. Their paths diverged, but they remained close. When Duncan bought a house close to Parliament in Gayfere Street, Hague moved in. His monthly rent was a case of champagne.

Duncan was a believer in the old Tory dictum that it is wise to make some serious money before going into parliamentary politics. He got bored with Shell, despite interesting travel in Africa, and joined Marc Rich, the legendary commodity trader who lives in Switzerland because it has no extradition treaty with the US. (The Inland Revenue Service would like to question Rich closely about a little matter of $33m unpaid tax.)

Duncan worked with Rich for seven years, opening up new oil-trading markets in Asia, living the life of a well-heeled expat in Singapore. In 1989, he set up as an independent trader, Harcourt Consultants, and prospered mightily. He is said to have "made a killing" during the Gulf War, selling oil into Pakistan when Kuwait was occupied by Iraq. He does not dispute being a millionaire.

But politics was still the great lure. While working for Rich, Duncan fitted in a year as a Kennedy scholar at Harvard. At home, he cut his teeth in the unlikely territory of socialist south Yorkshire in Thatcher's third election victory of 1987, coming a distant second to Labour in Barnsley West and Penistone. Like other small men with big ambitions, Duncan likes a good scrap. He crossed the road to fall out with Lord Nolan, the enemy of sleaze, and in the aftermath of the 1984-85 miners' strike, he could be found with a bullhorn every Saturday in Barnsley market inveighing against Arthur Scargill, which was like denouncing the Pope in St Peter's Square. The swing to Labour did not put him off Yorkshire. He tried to secure the nomination at the Richmond by-election in early 1989, and was pipped by Hague. Duncan had to wait three more years before entering Parliament as the member for Rutland and Melton, an agreeable slice of rural Middle England with a thumping 25,000 majority, the Tories' third- safest seat.

He was already well known to the Conservative high command, having loaned his house to the John Major campaign team in the leadership election of November 1990. The Prime Minister repaid the favour by making an appearance in Duncan's constituency during the 1992 election. Duncan quickly earned praise for being an assiduous attender and participant in Commons debates, and notoriety for his Eurosceptic views. He signed a Commons motion demanding a "fresh start" on Europe after the Danes rejected Maastricht in a referendum, but supported the government on the treaty legislation. His reward was promotion to the lowest rung of power, as parliamentary private secretary to then health minister, Brian Mawhinney.

Duncan's spell in government lasted 17 days. The press learned of his adroit transaction in advancing pounds 140,000 to his elderly neighbour to buy the house next door from Westminster Council (at a discount of pounds 50,000) on the understanding that the property would revert to him. It is now worth at least pounds 300,000. All quite legal, but just too neat to survive the unforgiving climate of opinion about politicians. Only 15 fellow Tory MPs signed a Commons motion supporting him, while more than 200 Opposition MPs signed a deeply critical motion. Duncan felt obliged to resign in January 1994.

This mini-scandal also attracted press scrutiny of his father's suicide four years earlier. James Grant Duncan, suffering from terminal cancer, shot himself. Duncan issued a statement through his solicitor saying that any attempt to investigate his father's death would be "an unwarranted invasion of privacy and must immediately cease". Admitting the fact of his father's suicide "at the hand of his own gun", he added with the grim, Delphic comment: "It is a decision of which his family remains proud."

YET Duncan was fascinated by the media. In October 1995, John Major, exasperated by his own bad press, drafted three Tory MPs as extra spin doctors for the party conference. Duncan, who was one of them, was in his element, dashing round the media centre telling correspondents how it really was. He was given the job of chief minder in the string of disastrous by-elections. By such means he worked his passage back into the magic circle, as PPS to Brian Mawhinney again, when the hard-nosed Ulsterman went to Central Office as party chairman.

After the general election debacle, Duncan's rehabilitation put him in an interesting position. With his preferred leader - Michael Portillo - out of the running, he offered his services as campaign manager to William Hague when few believed in the young pretender. The canny trader persuaded influential MPs like Michael Ancram, the former Northern Ireland minister, that it could be done. Duncan fought a cleaner campaign than some of his rivals, who tried without success to smear Hague as gay. Duncan, incidentally, is libertarian on this front, too. He was among the small band of Tory MPs who supported reduction of the homosexual age of consent to 16.

But Duncan has nerve. Even his fiercest critics concede that. They should add staying power. He has signed up for the long march towards power, and is unshakeable in his view that Blair will crumble. He may be right. But that does not mean people will want to dismantle the state, quit Europe and legalise heroin and cocaine. More a case, perhaps, of Saturn's Child than Saturn's Children.

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