In The Thick of It: A British minister's experiences

A glimpse into UK's high office with Duncan's 'private diary' In The Thick of It
5 min read
11 May, 2021
Book Club: The memoir is of high value particularly for those who want to get a taste of how handling Brexit and Trump felt like from the inside.
In the Thick of It is a blow-by-blow of a Foreign Office Minister's experiences
Ask most British politicians, the period of 2016-2020 was an era in itself, that witnessed the referendum to leave Europe, two general elections, open civil war inside the Conservative and Labour parties, between the government and Parliament and the judiciary to boot. 

It finished with a Conservative government under Boris Johnson, a man many saw unfit to lead, and a Brexit deal whose consequences are still playing out.

It was a time of savage political bloodletting where friendships ended and rivalries crossed all boundaries. It was in short one of the most unedifying periods of British politics.

In the Thick of It is a blow-by-blow (almost literally) of a Foreign Office Minister's experiences, warts and all, during this maelstrom.

Sir Alan Duncan, a Member of Parliament for 32 years, rarely minces his words. You can pick through the well-trailed tasty soundbites and caustic barbs against his former colleagues.

Much of it is expressed in real-time exasperation as he points out. In many ways Duncan says what so many say, but perhaps without much of a filter.

He describes Boris Johnson as a "clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgement." Well, many in the Tory Parliamentary ranks privately agreed.

Duncan also relates how one foreign minister had asked him, 'What is it like to be Boris Johnson's pooper scooper?' (Duncan also dishes out plenty of praise about many of his fellow politicians as well but this does not sell newspapers let alone books).

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He does not hold back when he beholds idiocy, in plentiful supply in these times. Perceived fools get short thrift. You live through his tensions between being loyal to a Prime Minister, Theresa May, he helped bring to power and his acute frustrations about her complete lack of social skills and empathy. But to focus solely on this misses the real value in this diary.  

He describes Boris Johnson as a 'clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgement'
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allows Israel to believe it's above the law

Within these pages are also wise observations about government, relations between elected politicians and civil servants and about decline in standards. 

The memoir is of high value particularly for those who want to get a taste of how handling Brexit and Trump felt like from the inside, at the grubby coalface.

He bemoans rightly the "pettiness of poor decision-making and the strutting of tiresome egos are a constant frustration." His observation on Brexit that, "it is unworthy of a serious party of government to suggest that highly complex questions have easy answers, or that there are no trade-offs between national sovereignty and economic well-being" will stand the test of time. His venting against the increasing power of special advisers who try to boss ministers around chimes with what so many MPs have confided to me over the years.  

His experiences and insights into international relations not least about the Middle East, an area he has loved and known for most of his working life are worth paying careful attention to. 

He had indeed believed that Theresa May had appointed him to be Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East. He rails against what he deems to be the improper interference of the Conservative Friends of Israel, a pro-Israeli government lobby group, that led to him being switched to Minister for Europe. 

Duncan was the target of an Israel lobby effort to discredit him and take him down, exposed in an Al Jazeera documentary

Duncan was the target of an Israel lobby effort to discredit him and take him down, exposed in an Al Jazeera documentary. He is quite right to ask why the Conservative party puts up with a lobby that "promotes a strong Netanyahu/Likud version of Israeli history and ambitions."   He is appalled that CFI leaders "positively revelled in defending Israel's incarceration of children."

Duncan also has very close ties with Oman and Yemen. He personifies the close personal relations between Britain and the Omani leadership, and drove through a joined-up UK strategy on Oman. 

On Yemen, Duncan laments the near total UK disinterest in the war torn country, something very visible even today despite his efforts.

He accuses then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond of having zero interest in "this poor dilapidated country, because quite frankly he's not bothered. As Foreign Secretary, he's only interested in the rich ones." 

He also confesses to feeling "very uneasy morally about having to defend Saudi excesses. They are bombing the country [Yemen] to bits and will achieve nothing except its miserable destruction."

He also confesses to feeling 'very uneasy morally about having to defend Saudi excesses. They are bombing the country [Yemen] to bits and will achieve nothing except its miserable destruction'

Duncan is a rich source of telling anecdotes. He recounts the behaviour of Turkish President Erdogan on one visit. His entourage "have firearms, against all understandings. They just lie and ram things through. They marched into the dining room and displaced all the place names even though we are the hosts, and removed everyone from the top table except the Duke of York and me." This all rings true given the behaviour of 'Erdogan's goons' in Washington in 2017 when they beat up protesters in the American capital.

The diaries are a highly readable and valuable account shedding light about being in the eye of the storm. Duncan's keen intellect and wealth of experience will reward careful reading. Above all, these diaries are fun and his joie de vivre shines brightly through its pages.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (Council for Arab-British Understanding). He is a regular opinion writer and commentator on the Middle East and has organised and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to the region.

Follow him on Twitter: @Doylech

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