Greasy Pole: The Hard Life and Times of Alan Duncan
At this distance the coming general election promises – or should that be threatens – to become a contest between Gordon Brown and David Cameron over who can be trusted to be the more ruthless and speedy as a slasher and sacker. After his expeditious dealing with the crazier expense claims of the more arrogant Tory MPs, Cameron could be seen as a nose ahead – which may explain the manner in which he firmly bumped Alan Duncan down the greasy pole, from Shadow Leader of the House to Shadow Justice Minister. It was all to do with Duncan allowing himself to be recorded, by a man named Heydon Prowse, moaning about the mistreatment and malnourishment of MPs: “No one who has done anything on the outside world, or is capable of doing such a thing, will ever come into this place again, the way we are going. Basically it’s being nationalised. You have to live on rations and are treated like shit”. This raises the question of why there are always so many candidates, in every constituency, fighting each other for a life of rations and abuse – but never mind. Cameron at first tried to draw a veil over the problem by saying that he had “made it clear in no uncertain terms that when it comes to the mess of expenses, the words we use, just as the actions we take, have got to demonstrate completely that we share the public’s real fury at what went on in Parliament. Alan made a bad mistake and he has acknowledged that…I think we should leave it at that”. But then Cameron returned from holiday in a slightly different mood, demoting Duncan rather than condemning him to the impoverishment of the back benches. This may have had something to do with Duncan’s erratic background and standing as a Tory MP.
Elected in John Major’s surprise 1992 election win for the rock-solid Conservative seat of Rutland and Melton – a nice reward for the offer of his home in Westminster as headquarters for Major’s leadership campaign after Thatcher’s resignation in 1990 – Duncan spent some time in relative obscurity as a faultlessly handsome, immaculate and fixedly smiling participant in group photographs until in December 1993 he blossomed as Parliamentary Private Secretary at the then Ministry of Health. However any celebration of this promising start was cruelly cut off just a month later after the embarrassing news that he had lent an elderly neighbour the money to buy his council house at a cut price under the right-to-buy scheme so beloved of Thatcher’s Tories.
But three years later Duncan, who described himself as a libertarian member of the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward, cashed in on the deal by buying the house from the neighbour – again at a very attractive price. His unavoidable resignation was greeted, with typical asperity, by Giles Brandreth: “little Duncan has fallen on his sword…swiftly and with good grace”. Which characteristic probably also featured in another episode when, as the owner of Harcourt Consultants – advising companies, governments and whoever can afford to pay on matters concerning oil and gas supplies – he made over £1 million through involvement in supplying oil to Pakistan after disruption of the flow from Kuwait in the Gulf War. It might be thought that this said more about the reasons for the British involvement in that war than all the inflated nonsense about rooting out terrorists. And “good grace” again last year, when it emerged that while he was Shadow Business Secretary, responsible for Tory policy on energy, Duncan’s private office received donations from the chairman of Vitol – one of the world’s top crude oil traders.
To put it moderately Duncan enjoys – and expends a lot of energy in – being the centre of attention. However much this may please him it has also cultivated a significant number of rivals and enemies. After the 2005 general election he declared himself to be a candidate for the Tory leadership in place of the defeated Michael Howard but had to withdraw rapidly after it was clear that there was no support for him – which he put down to the “Tory Taliban”. So it was to be expected, when the MP’s expenses scam was dragged into the open Duncan’s claims would be closely scrutinised – especially in view of the fact that, as Shadow Leader of the House, he oversaw the party’s reform policy on the matter. The Daily Telegraph reported that he had claimed £1400 a month mortgage interest on his Rutland home, recouped over £4000 for gardening expenses during a three year period and claimed £598 for maintenance of a ride-on lawn mower with £41 to repair a puncture in the machine. Some residents in his constituency saw this as nauseating enough to justify inviting passers-by to take a ride on a lawn mower which they had set up in the street – and Heydon Prowse to cut a £ sign in Duncan’s lawn. Last May Have I Got News For You pursued Duncan by showing a passage from a previous appearance when he boasted about his Second Home Allowance (he also owns two properties in Westminster) and described it as “a great system” – until Cameron went after him, when he agreed to refund the money and called for “the system” to be changed. According to the website ConservativeHome – notable for its combative style – a poll of 1600 grassroot Tories in Duncan’s constituency thought he should be sacked.
Members of Parliament come in many shapes, sizes and origins. Duncan’s replacement as Shadow Leader of the House is Sir George Young, an Old Etonian who once complained of having to declare, as an MP, a gift of bottles of champagne and who revealed the depth of his understanding of the meaning of poverty when he described the homeless as “people you step over when you leave the opera”. Young was chairman of the House of Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges when, in 2003, it gave judgement in the matter of the false expense claims by the Tory MP for Windsor, Michael Trend, amounting to over £90,000. Trend, apologising to the Commons, put it all down to his being “muddled and naive”. Young’s committee were not unsympathetic and just suspended Trend for two weeks. A memory to comfort Alan Duncan in the darkest days of his struggles to survive on his rations.