It’s no secret that quite a few Tory MPs think Boris Johnson is on manoeuvres and must be stopped. But none are as vocal as his former deputy in the Foreign Office, Alan Duncan.
He recently tweeted that ‘I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later.’ I asked him why he had responded in such a way, and we had an interesting conversation that I suggested we put on the record. He agreed, and we met recently in his Westminster home. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
FN: You attacked Boris in pretty forthright terms on Twitter. Why?
AD: We are at a very critical moment, where if we get this wrong, we have no Brexit, no government, Corbyn. We may even have a period of parliament finding it very difficult to get any proper government together. So we are on the edge of very grave danger, and we’ve got to get it right, so my view is you’ve got to be 100 per cent behind Teresa May. Every step the ERG has taken to box her in has weakened our negotiating position and made international observers say: where the hell is Britain going on this? Can they deliver? Is Brexit going to happen? You can only get a good deal if you’ve got a united party behind the Prime Minister doing the negotiating.
My concern was that Boris was limbering up to have a go at her in Conference – and so, I thought, not acting in the national interest. So as someone in a slightly unique position, I thought: if he’s going to have a go at the Prime Minister, I’ll fight fire with fire.
FN: But you said you were finishing him. Was that overstating things? Twitter can have that effect on people.
AD: Look, I admit there was hyperbole in my tweet. But it would have been ignored if there hadn’t been! You have to respond to a Boris with a bit of Boris.
FN: What makes you think Boris is going for the leadership? There’s no sign of him organising, no phone lines being installed anywhere.
AD: Well, let’s just talk about Boris for a minute. My view when I worked with him as Foreign Secretary was to be loyal to Boris, loyal to Theresa, and stay out of the news. There was only room for one showman in the Foreign Office. I get on with the diplomacy. But for Boris? Publicity is his cocaine. He needs a regular fix. And he equates getting publicity with having political power and authority and respect. But I think what he doesn’t realise is that whereas he used to be an electoral asset, that is now waning.
FN: Is it waning? He was twice elected Tory mayor of a Labour city. He won a referendum.
AD: Yes! That’s the point! He did. But he wouldn’t now.
FN: Why not?
AD: If you don’t see that – you take a step out of London. Actually, you take a few steps in London: he’s not what he was. I had no animosity to him. When asked what I thought of him, I’d say: ‘’he was impossible to dislike, but he was impossible’. That sort of sums him up.
FN: What was it like to work with him, work for him?
AD: Always convivial and fun. Never dull. Not deeply inquisitive, and actually, not at all collegiate. He’d run it with his special advisers for publicity, not for ministers as his team. He was not a team player at all. The danger is that his personality becomes his politics. But if he thinks he’s gonna to be the new Trump, it’s not gonna fly. Because of the publicity coverage, people exaggerate his support, both in parliament and amongst the activists.
FN: I put it to you that if there were a leadership contest, him versus anyone else, he would walk it amongst the membership. He revs up the troops.
AD: Total, total rubbish. This is a fiction of journalistic imagination. And it’s simply not true. It’s just not borne out amongst any colleagues you talk to, when they sort of talk to the activists. It’s just a total myth.
And I’ll tell you the other concern. Fun though he is, he’s empowering the ERG. Now I was one of the founder members of the ERG in 1993, when Michael Spicer used to have lunches in Victoria Street. I spent years being a Eurosceptic, and then I suppose it’s all part of learning a bit more, getting wiser, seeing the complexity of it and all that. And I am absolutely, you know, determined, to make sure that the Conservative party is not turned into the mutant child of UKIP. Which is where I think the ERG are taking us. There are many ultra-ideological figures in that group. Now ideology of that sort is fundamentally un-Conservative. We take a difficult world as it is, we try to improve it. We take the past, we try to improve it. We do not submit our thinking to scrutiny against some ideological template. Now in my view, that’s what the ERG are doing.
So, we’ve got the two main parties in a very odd position: Labour being captured from outside and the Conservative government being held to ransom, to some extent, from inside. We are ill-served either by Momentum or Moggmentum.
FN: Isn’t the ERG stiffening her negotiating position? Don’t you increase the chance of getting a good deal by demonstrating willingness to walk away and take no deal?
AD: That is putting an overgenerous construction on both the motives of ERG’s constant demands and ultimatums to the Prime Minister. What we need is engagement. Now I think we’ll get a deal. I think it’s beginning to come together. Not helped by noises off, and not helped, in any way, by people undermining the Prime Minister. The only – the best thing we can do is for the party conference to be the moment where it’s 100 per cent support for the PM with no noises off. That’s what will give her negotiating strength, not people carping.
FN: Yes, you’ve been through this journey, for its highs and its lows, for many years.
AD: And I think my generation, the 1992 intake, held the party together through the Blair years.
FN: Might that generation be about to be about to split the party apart by fighting over Brexit?
AD: I don’t think it’s my generation. You get called funny things after twenty-five years or more, you know, veteran, old stager, top Tory, old fart, you know, any of these things. My only wish is just to try and use my experience to impart what I hope is a tiny bit of wisdom, to say just don’t overdo the purist sort of line, and use it against Teresa May. You know, holding the party together and finding a pragmatic solution is what Conservatives should do.