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Alan Duncan’s Diary: Boris Johnson’s private life, horrible road signs and why the Tories are lucky

The Conservatives were blessed in the general election by Jeremy Corbyn, and much of the PM's good fortune stems from Keir Starmer's lacklustre impact. 

By Alan Duncan

I had been delaying a business trip for months, but it had become essential. On the road to Heathrow my hopes for Global Britain get off to a bad start. For years I feel I have been leading a solitary campaign to rid the UK of millions of unnecessary road signs that so blight our streetscape. The journey into London that greets all who drive to and from the airport is worse than many in what used to be termed the Third World. There are three banks of misaligned poles on most of the side streets, and no end of rust and grot. It is a national disgrace.

My road signs task force report, which I forced on the Department for Transport a few years ago, has sat ever since in a drawer, unimplemented. I doubt Chris Grayling even studied it when he was transport minister. There is always something more important, such as collapsing airlines and train franchises, preventing anyone from tidying up this failure of national policy. Perhaps the greatest culprit is Transport for London, the great desecrator. I fear the outcome of the London mayoral election will not be a surprise, but a sudden new approach to clearing up the visual filth that has been created by layer upon layer of congestion, emissions and red route signs most certainly would be.

[See also: Spain’s lockdown-sceptic right storms to victory in Madrid election]

In the nick of time

My week in Karachi draws to a close just as Pakistan’s government begins to enforce tighter lockdown restrictions ahead of the end of Ramadan. Rather like the US president’s plane in the film Independence Day, I escaped in the nick of time. Pakistan has fortunately not suffered the same intense virus catastrophe as India, although there are some worrying signs in the Punjab.

My responsibilities as a minister for international development in the coalition government covered many other countries, but the renewed sight of poverty in Karachi awakened a sense of shame at how our own government has relegated the UK’s aid activity. With no public or parliamentary debate to justify its action, No 10 has amalgamated the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign Office, and chosen to break the law by reducing its spending from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP. If it’s the right thing to do, then kindly explain why and change the law. I would readily cut out some of the more wishy-washy projects from the old DfID budget, but desperate Yemen is not one of them. No convincing rationale for the marriage has yet been offered. With a lack of policy in both halves of the Foreign and Development Office, it would be nice to hear some grown-up reasoning for the change.

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The truth about Bahrain

Pakistan is on the UK’s Covid red list, and as I’m not especially keen to be confined to a hotel cell in Slough for ten days, I have chosen to serve out my obligations in Bahrain. It’s one of those countries whose mention so often provokes preconditioned disapproval. Out come the immediate accusations that the ruling Al Khalifa family, part of the Sunni minority, spend all their time oppressing the Shia majority: the arithmetic is undeniable, but the reality is markedly different.

Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution there was extremely rare dissent among the Bahraini Shia in what was a largely harmonious and happy state, but the Iranians have since deliberately stirred unrest. As in many countries – not least with our own troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland – there have been errors in Bahrain over the last 40 years. The government has nonetheless taken huge steps to extend prosperity to its Shia population, and is doing its utmost to create and maintain a fair and contented society. Despite the country’s evident success, unfounded accusations of torture and oppression are accepted without question by many and regurgitated as fact. Some of the Iranian-backed threats directed to the regime, some of which involve lethal weaponry and explosives, would hurt both Sunni and Shia citizens, and are on the extreme scale of barbarity. There is no shame in the Bahrainis so effectively thwarting them.

[See also: Annalena Baerbock: the woman who could become Germany’s first Green chancellor]

Scrappy Johnson, lacklustre Starmer

The local and mayoral elections will have been the first electoral contest between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer. It seems that the further north you go, the better it is for Boris – until, that is, you reach Hadrian’s Wall. The success of the vaccine programme shows Boris at his best. But all the other noises-off expose his scrappy side. One day we will know whether the untidiness of his life does him in or whether, as a close friend of mine insists, it won’t because he will have successfully redefined British politics.

Much of his good fortune stems from the lacklustre impact of Keir Starmer. The Tories were blessed in the general election by Jeremy Corbyn, and it now appears there is little chance of Starmer posing a serious threat. If the political arts have indeed been redefined by Boris, no attacks on him will cut through – unless his own MPs turn against him. Starmer lacks the oomph either to appeal widely enough to voters, or to shake off the albatross of Momentum. My own qualm about him, however, is more old-fashioned. As with all former senior civil servants, defence chiefs and judges, I don’t think a former director of public prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service should enter party politics. It places a permanent retrospective question mark over the impartiality of his or her judicial decisions.

[See also: Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die]

A bet’s a bet

On Joe Biden’s inauguration day I sent Boris Johnson £50 to honour my 2017 wager with him that Donald Trump would not serve his full term. I lost by a whisker. I note from Tom Bower’s riveting book on Boris, which (forgive the plug!) is good to read alongside my diaries, In the Thick of It, that Max Hastings, Johnson’s boss at the Telegraph, undertook to move to Argentina if Johnson became PM. Hastings is an honourable man. I assume the pandemic is his excuse for not yet having bought a ticket to Buenos Aires.

Alan Duncan is a former Conservative MP and foreign minister. “In the Thick of It” (William Collins) is out now

This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?