Alan Duncan, the dapper shadow transport spokesman, is indisputably the most eye-catching of the Tory leadership contenders. Aside from being openly gay, he has a habit of saying and doing unusual things. Earlier in the year he posed for a charity calendar called ‘Men in Wellies’ wearing only a red Santa Claus hat, with a photograph of Lady Thatcher concealing his private parts. Recently, while launching his campaign, he cheerfully compared the Conservative party to an underwear department that needed frilly knickers.
Duncan’s behaviour, understandably, has led people to ask whether he is really serious. To find out, I went to see him at his house in Westminster. Duncan, 48 and slight of stature, is elegantly dressed without looking as if he has tried too hard. He is good-looking and has greying hair and a pleasant tenor voice.
I ask him if his standing for the leadership is all part of the game of being Alan Duncan, as his detractors claim, or does he really mean it? It appears that he does. ‘When you have a view of your country, you don’t want to miss the chance. I suppose I sometimes go where others fear to tread, which makes life a bit racy. But going for it has been very liberating. I want to be free to speak. I will either rise well or crash. I don’t care which.’
But surely he must care if he crashes? He looks thoughtful. ‘Well, if I think the natural grouping in the party supports me, we are on to a winner. If it doesn’t, I won’t be bitter.’ He continues, ‘We have David Davis’s way ahead and he’s great. I could work with him. Cameron is new on the block. But I think there is a view for the party that has not emerged from them. We have to win the battle of ideas. This is not a matter of who is in whose gang.’
You could have fooled me. This is the most factional leadership contest I can remember. ‘That’s what I’m trying to smash,’ Duncan says vehemently. ‘I’m trying to pitch it higher. I don’t want to see a Cameronian faction facing a Davis faction.’
But, Alan, I say, there are those who insist that you are only doing this in order to be in a good bargaining position with whoever wins. He pulls at his blue silk tie. ‘I am not in that business. One or two of my colleagues are in that business, but not me. Leadership should not be about deal-making. My only mission is to bang some heads together and lead the party.’
I am beginning to believe that this is what he truly thinks; Duncan seems too outrageous to be an arch-intriguer. So how many pledges do you have?
There is a short silence. ‘I haven’t been going around getting pledges.’
What? No pledges? Then how can you possibly get anywhere? The other candidates already have quite a few pledges. He seems unperturbed. ‘I’ve probably got about 20 people who say, “If you are serious, we are with you.”’
But will you go through with this till the end, or might you suddenly withdraw? He admits that he might. ‘If all the other side coalesce around someone else, I will be realistic. Of course I would like that someone to be me. OK, I excite strange and differing responses and reactions, but that is what the Tories need to do.’
Much has been made of Duncan’s sexuality. He is reported as believing that an openly gay leader would illustrate that the Tories have become more tolerant. But will that really make a difference? His reply is rather Freudian: ‘I don’t dangle it in front of the electorate. But we must stop rubbishing sections of our own society. That needs to be neutralised. And we must appeal to the under-35s.’
Is that why you talk about frilly knickers? He stares at me. ‘Oh, Petronella, do you wear frilly knickers?’
No. They spoil the line of your clothes. Alan, why do you say things that other politicians never say?
‘I want all my colleagues to be like me. I’m comfortable in my own frame. If I say something risqué, people think I am more human. We should rip the piss out of ourselves.’
Is that what you were doing when you posed for that calendar? He sighs. ‘That is my Achilles’ heel. It was a bit more risqué than I thought it was going to be. I thought I would be more covered up. But my constituents loved it.’
He has a confession to make, however: ‘I’m slightly upset because I feel it was slightly undignified. I wish I hadn’t done it.’
But at least you have what Denis Healey called a hinterland. ‘Yes. I have interests,’ he says. ‘I sing. I used to be a choirboy. I am a very good mimic, which can get me into trouble.’
He then launches into a really excellent imitation of Rory Bremner imitating Michael Howard: ‘Pipple know we are inclusive because we have Alan Duncan, and he is gay!’ Duncan is also highly literate. He reads a great deal, particularly political biographies.
I ask him who his hero is. ‘Alexander the Great,’ he replies. ‘I’m probably overdoing it as he did conquer the world by the time he was 30.’ Did he see the recent Hollywood film? ‘Oh, God. Turgid, ghastly.’
In the corner of the room is a guitar that belongs to his brother. ‘He has two beautiful daughters. I love my nieces. They’re great. They keep me sane.’ He sounds so wistful that I ask him if he misses not having children. ‘Yes, I do. I always wanted children. I just knew it was never possible to do the wife bit.’
Couldn’t you have just held your nose? No, he says. Does he have a steady boyfriend? ‘No, so I can’t adopt children. I don’t believe in single fathers. And the cost, and the time involved. It’s so difficult in politics. Some GPs are paid twice as much as we are. But I’m not here to complain.’
Duncan has been in Parliament for 13 years now. He holds Rutland and Melton with a majority of 13,000. ‘Ten years ago,’ he says, ‘the party thought I was a cocky little shit. Now they are looking at me and thinking, “Umm.” And I am looking at them and thinking, “Umm.” It’s a wonderful moment.’
He smiles beatifically. Whatever happens to Alan Duncan, he is certainly enjoying himself, which is more than can be said for most Tories. What is more, he actually believes what he is saying. I predict that Alan Duncan will lose the leadership contest, but that the man who wins it, if he has any sense, will keep this most redoubtable, intelligent and cheering of politicians close by his side.