April 9, 2021

It is a generally acknowledged truth that the best political diarists — from Alan Clark to Chips Channon — are always second-rate politicians. In fact, the success of their journals is often because they never made it to the top, thereby allowing them to observe and snipe from the sidelines. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that the present age seems to be throwing up so many aspiring “great” diarists; people who, knowingly or otherwise, will never escape their legacies as unremarkable figures in history.

Last year, for instance, we had the diaries of Sasha Swire. She was the first member of the Cameron circle — her husband being former MP and Cameron chum Hugo Swire — to spill its secrets. The serial rights for her diaries were bought by the Sunday Times, and inevitably the newspaper was eager to make comparisons with leading diarists of the past. Indeed, the paper’s publicity shot for the first serial — printed on the cover of its magazine — showed Swire sitting in bed, surrounded by the day’s newspapers, pen in hand, glasses and diary at the ready, with a volume of Alan Clark’s memoirs on the bedside table.

Yet the comparison harmed more than it helped; it merely made the thinness of the material on offer look  thinner still. Swire’s revelations changed nothing and illuminated nothing. They showed the Cameron circle to be exactly what we thought they were: fairly entitled, noticeably cliquey and slightly lazy. Apart from a throw-away sexual reference that Cameron once made to Sasha Swire, all that was on offer was the startling revelation that Conservative party politics is replete with jostling, resentment and failure. Swire distinguished herself only in being the first of her tribe to betray the pack-leader.

Now, less than a year on, we have another contender for “great diarist of the decade”: Sir Alan Duncan. In a similar format to Swire’s, Duncan’s new book was bought for serialisation by the Daily Mail, which grandly described Duncan’s efforts as “the most explosive political diaries ever”. Inevitably, they also ran with “Alan Clark, eat your heart out”.

Poor Alan Clark. If anything, Duncan’s efforts are even more tedious and less revelatory than Sasha Swire’s. He “reveals”, for instance, that his old Oxford contemporary Theresa May was not a very good people-person; that the special advisors around her had rather too much influence and power. He also “reveals” that he has a great dislike for Boris Johnson, describing him as a “buffoon” and as a “selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot”. Yes, it was quite the scoop.

Perhaps the situation would have been different had the shots come from someone who had hitherto displayed the discipline and restraint of a Trappist monk. But Duncan has never been quiet about his dislike of the Prime Minister: just two years ago, he could be found in every newspaper criticising Johnson for his “fly by the seats of his pants, haphazard” style. To be fair to Duncan, back then he could also be found telling the BBC that he felt no personal animosity towards Johnson, and indeed “wanted him to succeed”.

But as his diaries make clear, Duncan never wanted Johnson — or, for that matter, any of his colleagues — to “succeed”. Indeed, it is hard to find a single politician who Duncan admires: Priti Patel is a “witch”, Andrea Leadsom “despicable”, Andrea Jenkyns “ghastly”, Steve Baker “useless” and so on.

But tedious as they are, his witless insults shed some valuable light on why diaries such as Duncan’s often fail. For in order for a diary to be great, it must first give the reader a window on to a world we would otherwise never have seen. Second, the diarist must be able to write with some degree of self-analysis or self-knowledge. Alan Clark, for instance, was extremely aware of his flaws: as a womaniser, a snob and an otherwise often unlikeable figure.

Duncan, like Swire before him, illuminates nothing, while his vanity makes self-reflection impossible. For example, in his book he is dismissive of those who he believes supported Brexit for opportunistic reasons — without any reference to his own opportunism. There is, for instance, no mention of reports that, at an early stage in the EU referendum, Duncan met with the heads of Vote Leave to discuss taking a leading role in the campaign. When it became clear that Vote Leave might have more senior politicians than Duncan to call upon, he went to the other side. What can be said of such behaviour? Is it principled or opportunistic? Duncan — unlike Clark — is unwilling to say.

It is the same whenever Duncan seeks to find explanations for jobs he wanted but was not offered. During the 2016 reshuffle, he hoped to not only get the junior portfolio at the Foreign Office, which he was given, but also the job of Minister for the Middle East. His explanation? That the Conservative Friends of Israel went ”ballistic”; that people didn’t want him because “I believe in the rights of Palestinians and it’s quite clear that they don’t. They just want to belittle and subjugate the Palestinians.”

What Duncan does not seem to understand is that it is precisely for statements like that one that he was so unfit for the role he so desired. Put to one side the fact that he made his money in oil deals in the Middle East before entering politics. Or that his analysis of the landscape was even more unsubtle and unnuanced that his diaries portray them to be.

The main reason Duncan could never have been made Minister for the Middle East is that he had a history of sounding-off in unusually partisan terms against a country which is a major ally of the United Kingdom. It is because he spent years saying things that were undiplomatic that Duncan was never made the UK’s top diplomat. Not a surprise, really.

Somehow, the more we learn of the generation of politicians that has just left us, the less you want to know. At one point in his diaries, dated May 2019, Duncan confides that he has just had breakfast with David Cameron: “He is so glad not to be in the middle of everything that is going on at the moment.”

They are just as we thought: shallow, vainglorious, entitled and unremarkable. If they are glad not to be in the middle of “everything that is going on at the moment”, suffice it to say that the feeling is very much mutual.