POLITICS

Alan Duncan Interview: David Cameron And The Tories Must Make Voters 'Tingle' To Win 2015 General Election

02/02/2015 11:00 pm 23:00:14 | Updated 03 February 2015

Sir Alan Duncan isn't happy with the state of British politics - or the Conservative Party, for that matter.

"What disappoints me most is we seem less prepared to make a clear stand on something we believe in for fear of offending people, of losing support," the former Tory minister tells me, "when, in fact, we would be in a far stronger position if we had made a stand on things which are controversial in the short term but respected in the long term."

Like what, for example? Which controversial "things" is he referring to? There's a pause. "It’s just the whole attitude… which tends to want to follow opinion polls and the news agenda rather than say, 'I believe in low taxes because…'"

So he's basically saying our politics needs to be bigger, more ambitious, more ideological?

"That sums up my thoughts totally."

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I meet Duncan - who was knighted last summer for his diplomatic work in the Middle East - in his wood-panelled parliamentary office in the Palace of Westminster, six months on from his resignation from the coalition government in July 2014, having served as a minister of state for international development over the previous four years.

Duncan, elected to the Commons in 1992 as MP for Rutland and Melton after a stint as an oil trader, has long been identified with the so-called modernising wing of the Tories, which is often accused by its traditionalist opponents of hollowing out the Conservative Party and emptying it of ideological certainties. So, how does he square his call for more ideology and big ideas with his status as a card-carrying Tory moderniser?

"I don’t like being labeled a moderniser," he says, sitting across the table from me, his hands tucked deep inside his pockets. "I don’t mind being labeled a progressive because I think some fuddy-duddy approaches to society are so out of date they just look absurd.

"Conservatism has always been effective when it understands the country it aspires to govern. And I don’t think we do understand all corners of the country any more. We’ve only got one MP in Scotland. We understand our cities, particularly our northern cities, less and less. We are retreating and shrinking into safe… areas which means that our overall percentage of support is diminishing. We need to understand the entire country we aspire to govern."

There are some in his party who say modernisation didn't go far enough - some say it went too far. Where does he stand?

"I never go with these simple labels," he repeats, before pointing to the record of his own former department. "With aid, we’ve delivered it."

But only in the face of widespread opposition amongst Tory MPs and activists who want to see the aid budget slashed, no?

"Well, in a mild sort of way. It’s an easy quote to keep someone in the news but actually people are not fuming about it."

For Duncan, the "mayhem" in Syria and Iraq, as well as the spread of Ebola, has made it "more and more difficult" for his fellow Tories to say "we should spend less" on the aid budget.

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Duncan, while development minister, visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan in 2013

Nevertheless, he concedes, "there is quite a lot of pressure on some of DfID’s resources".

Duncan points also to greater diversity in the Tory parliamentary party. "In terms of candidates, we’ve got a lot more ethnic candidates. I think that’s good. When the project started, we didn’t have a single Muslim MP. Now I’m pleased to say we do."

But the former minister isn't a fan of quotas or positive discrimination. "I’m against that," he says. "I prefer evolution to imposition. But I think through a natural evolution within the party it does look very different to how it did 10 years ago."

A decade ago, in 2005, Duncan stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party before pulling out of the race and lambasting the "Tory Taliban" with regressive social views who, he claimed, would condemn the party "to oblivion". It was a bold and much-needed analysis of an opposition party in limbo.

But what's changed, I wonder? The Tories didn't win a majority in 2010 and look no closer to winning one in 2015. The swivel-eyed tendency on the Tory backbenches has been energised and empowered by the rise of Ukip and, thus, Duncan's Tory Taliban, like the real-life Taliban, don't seem to have been defeated or gone away.

He chuckles. "I don’t think your question is accurate. The Tory Taliban quip referred to those who sort of huffed and puffed at anyone who was gay… that’s changed."

Has it? What about the ructions over the gay marriage bill? Did he not notice all those Tory backbenchers who loudly objected to it, and all those Tory activists who defected to Ukip over that specific issue? I mention his fellow former minister, Sir Gerald Howarth, who warned of the dangers of an "aggressive homosexual community" during a Commons debate on the bill in May 2013.

He laughs again. "I think he was referring to the manner of some of the campaigning in its favour. That’s very Gerald... I don’t think one should characterize him in that mould, really."

For Duncan, "a lot of these attitudes have changed. We are not at odds with what are current social attitudes amongst young people on matters of sexuality. Everyone is now at ease. It’s a great tribute that we have been able to go down this path over what has been a 15-year period started by Tony Blair. It is a not a world whose attitudes were anything like the ones that existed when I entered parliament in 1992."

So, does he think the "changed" Conservative Party can win a majority come May 7?

"I think we can win. I think we are in a far better position than people realize. I don’t think Labour has a hope in hell of increasing its support. I think we do."

Duncan argues that the Tories are "going to do far better in the election than people think we are today. I think the polls understate our support, for lots of reasons."

However, he concedes that his party must do more to win over BME communities and is "weak in appealing to three million Muslims in the country".

"I don’t think we properly articulated our view on immigration," he continues. "Immigration, when it is just used as a word that means everything, ends up meaning nothing. We have to say which bits of it we like and which bits of we don’t. I, for one, do not think it’s right that non-British people who have not paid into an insurance system should so quickly receive benefits. So, inevitably, if you have to have this auction of benefits you’re going to suck people into the UK with artificial economics. I feel strongly about that."

On the other hand, he says, "I don’t think you can overcome in the modern world either globalization or the movement of people."

There are many in his party who would like to do just that. They point to the loss of national identity and dilution of British culture, not to mention the electoral threat from Ukip. Can the Tories afford to soften their harsh rhetoric on immigration?

"I think it's futile to think you can put the clock back to 1945. Our society has dramatically changed. It's all very well to go on about British values, well, let’s say what they are.

"I think one of the values is that we should include everybody in a united society which enjoys everyone’s difference. Diversity is a strength - but better that it’s not forced on people."

Duncan has a sharp political mind and is a veteran of both John Major's and William Hague's (successful) leadership campaigns. I ask him how he'd like his party high command to approach the coming general election campaign and, in particular, how he'd handle the growing threat from Ukip if he was in charge? Can the Conservatives (re)establish a poll lead over Labour, with less than 100 days till polling day?

"I think if we talk more in terms of vision than in terms of day-to-day politics, we can break out of this headlock. We’ve got to teach a whole new generation what politics is about. People leave school with almost no understanding of politics and it's becoming increasingly shallow because of social media – and I have to say ruder and cruder – but if people are given something to believe in, to make them realize that we can and will be better than France and better than Greece, then they might realize that there's a choice that really matters."

Cameron, however, isn't an ideologue. He is a former public relations operative who is said to have once remarked that he wanted to be prime minister because he would be "good at it". Is the Tory leader really the right man to be articulating the importance of politics and big ideological choices?

"We’ve got [less than] 100 days to make it clearer what we stand for and I think that would bank more votes, reap dividends and give people a proper reason for believing in us. We’ve got to work out what it is we are selling. We cannot administer our way to victory.

"We have to persuade people that there is a reason for voting us and we have time to do that."

Duncan thinks a majority is within grasp if the Tories and their leader campaign with "a bit of passion with a bit of vigour, with what I call the tingle factor. We need the tingle factor in politics."

I ask again: does the PM have what it takes? Does he have that "tingle factor"? "If he pushes the button and goes for it, yes he does. He did it over Scotland. He’s quite good when he gets angry." Duncan chuckles.

"Conventional wisdom is that we live in a non-ideological age," he adds. "I think that’s an error."

So non-ideological Cameron is the right man to lead the Tories in an ideological age? Really?

"He’s capable of it," says Duncan. "And he is the best of the bunch."

This doesn’t sound to me like a ringing endorsement of his party leader and the nation’s premier.

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Cameron is 'quite good when he gets angry', says Duncan

Cameron has also been accused of being "frit" by trying to avoid the televised leaders' debates - the same debates he supported back in 2010. Does Duncan agree?

"No, I think his approach to the debates is perfectly logical and clearly he is getting his way," is the firm reply from the former development minister, who goes on to say: "I have, however, always been against these debates; they belittle politics, they’re shallow, they’re trivial."

Duncan believes it would "be better to have long, deep interviews of an hour with each of the leaders rather than this sort of mock BBC Question Time formula. You go and do Question Time and it’s got five people on it. You travel all the way to Newcastle and you get two minutes. The idea that anyone is going to say anything profound in a 7-way debate…" His voice trails off as he rolls his eyes.

What about the proposed one-on-one TV debate between Cameron and Miliband? Is Duncan one of those Tories who sees Miliband as a loser and an oddball, who poses no threat to the Conservatives’ electoral prospects? Or does he worry that the Labour leader is being underestimated by Tory high command?

The MP produces a mischievous smile. “Oh, I’ve always thought he was by far the more normal of the two brothers.”

Come May 8, both Cameron and Miliband could be competing with each other to win over the support of the Liberal Democrats in a hung parliament. Does Duncan want to see another Con-Lib coalition? My assumption is that he does.

There's a pause. "Well, these hypothetical questions beg the big question about parliamentary arithmetic. I would like, and I still think it’s just possible, to get an overall Conservative majority and that’s what we’ve got to fight for. But even if we get that, the fixed-term parliaments act is still a complete Horlicks piece of legislation. Let’s say we get a majority of five. Well, maybe after two years when you want to go back to the people to say 'Lets refresh this mandate', you cant do that unless you have a vote of no confidence in yourselves so stupid is this piece of legislation."

Yes, but a "stupid piece of legislation" put on the statute book by a government of which he was part? "Well… it was a way of glueing the coalition together. But I think it was an excessive way of doing it and to slip in a massive constitutional change on that basis was an error." Duncan says he would have preferred a "handshake" between the Conservative and Lib Dem leaders, rather than legislation. "Or they should have had a sunset clause so that it expired on May 8."

As for minority governments, Duncan isn’t a fan. Such a government "can only limp along doing the barest minimum. It’s all very well to call for it but you’re not calling for a strong government. You’re calling for a government that can do almost nothing."

What about Ukip? Would he be willing to go into coalition with Nigel Farage and his gang, or rely on the Kippers in a confidence and supply agreement?

"I think [that] is easily avoided by the fact that Ukip will be lucky to get more than one or two seats."

What, excluding sitting Ukip MPs (and Tory defectors) Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless?

"Including,” he responds. "I think they’ll get anywhere between zero and four." Duncan believes Ukip’s support has been overstated by both the polls and the media and things will be "very different" as election day approaches and voters are forced to choose between a Conservative and a Labour government.

Nevertheless, Duncan, despite describing some Ukip candidates as "pretty odd", is an ardent Eurosceptic who says Ukip as a whole “has a point” in relation to the European Union. "They have strayed from being the party that says we don’t like being governed by Brussels, to one which has a second strand, which is getting pretty brutish on immigration, and they have become the bucket for people to spit in. That I think will not translate into many seats. However, they do have a point about the way in which we’re governed from Brussels and we cannot ignore that."

Duncan tells me that he shares some of Ukip’s "anger" over Britain’s relationship with the EU: "I have done ever since I voted ‘no’ in 1975."

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Duncan shares Farage's anger over Britain's membership of the EU

Is he a supporter of 'Brexit' now? He shakes his head. "I wish we’d never joined. That’s not the same as saying we should pull out straight away because no one has properly assessed the real costs and benefits of doing so. I think, also, the review of competencies which happened in this government didn’t amount to much. It was supposed to be a way of working out where Brussels has power over us… well, it just turned into 10 telephone directories written by officials and meant absolutely nothing. That project, in my view, failed."

What would it take for him to vote 'yes' in an in/out EU referendum? "If renegotiation really changes to a significant extent the scope Brussels has to tell us what to do then I think staying in would be fine," is his answer.

But he’s not ruling out a 'no' vote? "I would not rule that out at all."

Duncan has been outspoken on the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict since leaving government last summer. In October 2014, in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute thinktank in London, the former development minister condemned the Israeli government for its "reprehensible" behaviour in the West Bank and its creation of "illegal colonies", and even drew an analogy between the Occupied Palestinian Territories and apartheid South Africa.

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Duncan has condemned Benjamin Netanyahu's Israeli government for 'reprehensible behaviour'

Why is it that so many politicians decide to criticize Israel’s behavior in the Occupied Territories only after they leave office, I wonder? I’m thinking here of, among others, Jimmy Carter in the United States, the late Robin Cook and Clare Short in the Labour Party and, of course, Duncan's fellow Tory, Baroness Warsi?

"Well, I was very vocal within government and it probably held me back," he replies. "The fact is there is a very strong view [on Israel] at the top which is very rigid and that is that."

But why is it so strong?

"It’s very difficult to analyse. I've said it before: it's partly funding... partly a lack of understanding about the plight of the Palestinians. It’s just an ingrained attitude which no one has stopped to reassess and it is sort of pushed to one side and put in the box marked ‘too difficult."

Does he regret singling out the influence of a "very powerful financial lobby" which puts pressure on British political parties to back the Israeli government? The Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned Duncan for his remarks and accused him of "raising the antisemitic theme of a Jewish lobby".

"It’s so obvious it’s undeniable," he laughs. In a nod to the Board of Deputies, he adds: "Those who protest, protest too much. They become self-defeating in their protest because it is so obvious."

Duncan continues: "It’s legitimate [to lobby], it’s fine in many, many ways, but one can’t pretend it does not exist."

The former minister tells me that "some of the closest allies I’ve made since my speech are with Jewish people within the United Kingdom who feel that the Jewish voice is the unrestrained voice of the ultra-right and is not one they share."

What would he say to critics who suggest his support for the Palestinians derives from his own background as an oil trader?

"It’s totally wrong," he replies, staring at me intently. "Marc Rich was a Jewish company, a very, very Jewish company, [where] I worked for 8 years." As a Tory parliamentary candidate, he continues, "I went to Israel with the CFI [Conservative Friends of Israel] and I’m one of those who formed an early view in their favour but I’ve learned more and more and travelled more and more and in the end you cannot ignore injustice. If you want to ignore injustice don’t be in politics."

After a decade in politics, in 2002, while serving as an opposition foreign affairs spokesman, Duncan became the first serving Conservative MP to reveal publicly that he was gay. "Living in disguise as a politician in the modern world simply isn't an option," he told the Times.

More than 12 years later, how hard is it being gay in the modern Conservative Party? "It’s fine," he says, quite nonchalantly. "We’ve smashed a glass ceiling. I think to be the first meant that quietly a lot was achieved on the back of it. It’s utterly immaterial."

Why, then, isn’t there a single openly gay cabinet minister in this coalition government? "I don’t know." He laughs. "Maybe I wasn’t good enough." He laughs again. There’s a long and quite awkward pause. And then he adds: "Well, its because…" Another pause. “I’ll let you work that one out.”

Can’t he tell me? He doesn’t respond and I'm left befuddled.

In 2010, WikiLeaks cables revealed that US spies had put together a dossier on Duncan and on his relationship with leading Conservatives, including the then foreign secretary William Hague. Did that bother the former development minister?

"I was very flattered to be in the WikiLeaks list," Duncan says, with a wry smile. "I’ve known all the [US] ambassadors… so I suppose I’ve been on their list as someone who is influential at the top of Conservative politics. They were charming when Wikileaks came out. I was immediately asked to a private lunch with the deputy ambassador who apologized. I said, 'It’s very simple. You would only need to apologise had I not been included.'" He chuckles.

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US intelligence officials took a special interest in the relationship between Duncan and Hague

Duncan has a sense of humour; he's intelligent, charming and charismatic. The former minister is a plain-speaker and a shrewd analyst of party politics. Thus, for many on the progressive wing of the Tory party, his departure from government in 2014 was a massive loss. To others, his failure to reach the cabinet is a bigger source of mystery.

Was it perhaps because of the financial scandals he was involved in? In the early 1990s, it emerged that Duncan had loaned his elderly next-door neighbour money in order for him to buy his council home, at a massive discount, under the right-to-buy legislation - and then bought it from him neighbour three years later. He had to resign from his post as a junior minister in the John Major government. In 2009, Duncan was caught up in the MPs' expenses scandal, after agreeing with parliamentary officials that the thousands of pounds he claimed in gardening expenses "could be considered excessive".

For the first time in the interview, he scowls. "No, not really. The right-to-buy thing was completely concocted."

But he quit the Major government over it, didn’t he?

"Yeah, because 'keep it quick, keep it tidy'. Once the press decide they have got a story sometimes you have to go to bow to the inevitable even if it’s unfair. That’s political life."

How about the expenses scandal then? Duncan was pilloried after being caught on camera complaining that MPs, in the wake of the expenses affair, were being forced to live on "rations". Does he regret that remark?

"Well," he shrugs, "you could go and talk to a lot of MPs now and ask them if being an MP is what they expected."

Does he mean in terms of pay and affordability? "In terms of affordability, dignity, effectiveness. So many are going. I don’t regret saying what I said because over the long term there is a real danger that parliament is going to be so browbeaten and bombarded and diminished, people are going to say: 'Oh my God, is that what we’ve really created?'"

Several Tory MPs from the 2010 intake have announced they're standing down at the next general election. What's driving this exodus of the newbies from Westminster?

"They can’t bear it. Its not just newbies. People come in, they just want to be a minister, and then they just push off. This is becoming a much diminished parliament, it’s becoming shallow, inexperienced, short-termist and petty."

The former minister tells me we now have an "ineffective legislature and an over-dominant executive, including lots of people who do not have any deep experience elsewhere."

Duncan and I were educated at the same private boys' school, Merchant Taylors' in Middlesex - more than 20 years apart, I hasten to add. Yet we were both taught by the same history teacher, who once told me that a young Alan Duncan had boasted of how he planned to become first an MP, then a minister, and then, finally, prime minister.

He made it two-thirds of the way towards his goal but does he regret never making to Number 10?

He dodges my question. "I stood down as a minister out of choice not to go out to grass but to change gear."

Well, what gear is he in now? "I always remain in sport gear," he says, leaning back in his chair, a wicked grin on his face. "Never in reverse."

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