Duncan began his career in the oil industry with Royal Dutch Shell, and was first elected to the House of Commons in the 1992 general election. After several minor positions in the government of John Major, he played a key role in William Hague's successful bid for the Conservative leadership in 1997. He received several promotions to the Conservative front bench until he eventually joined the Shadow Cabinet after the 2005 general election and stood for the Conservative leadership in 2005 but withdrew early on because of a lack of support. Eventual winner David Cameron appointed him Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in December 2005, the title of which was changed to Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in July 2007, now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He was removed from the Cabinet and appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George following the Government reshuffle in July 2014.
A return to front-line politics was signalled when his appointment as a minister of state at the Foreign Office (deputy foreign minister) was announced on 17 July 2016.
He was the first openly gay Conservative Member of Parliament, having publicly come out in 2002.
Duncan was born in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, the son of J. G. Duncan OBE, an RAF wing commander, and his wife Anne Duncan (née Carter), a teacher. The family travelled much, following Alan's father on NATO postings, including in Gibraltar, Italy, and Norway.
Duncan was educated at two independent schools: Beechwood Park School in Markyate, and Merchant Taylors' School in Northwood, at both of which he was 'Head Monitor' (head boy). Whilst coming from a Liberal family, and running (and losing) as a Liberal at a school mock election in 1970, Duncan joined the Young Conservatives in 1972. Duncan had two brothers, who also attended Beechwood Park School.
Duncan then attended St John's College at the University of Oxford, where he coxed the college first eight, and was elected President of the Oxford Union in 1979. Whilst there, he formed a friendship with Benazir Bhutto, and ran her successful campaign to become the President of the Oxford Union. He gained a Kennedy Scholarship to study at Harvard University between 1981 and 1982.
After graduating from Oxford, he worked as a trader of oil and refined products, first with Royal Dutch Shell (1979–81) and from 1982 to 1988 for US fugitive Marc Rich. Duncan worked for Rich in London and Singapore. From 1988 to 1992, Duncan used the connections he had built up to be self-employed, acting as a consultant and adviser to foreign governments on oil supplies, shipping and refining.
In 1989, Duncan set up the independent Harcourt Consultants, which advises on oil and gas matters. He made over a £1 million after helping fill the need to supply oil to Pakistan after Kuwait's supplies had been disrupted in the Gulf War.
Duncan was an active member of the Battersea Conservative Association from 1979 until 1984, when he moved to live in Singapore, from which he returned in 1986. After Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher resigned in November 1990, he offered his home in Westminster as the headquarters of John Major's leadership campaign.
Duncan first stood for Parliament as a Conservative candidate in the 1987 general election, unsuccessfully contesting the safe Labour seat of Barnsley West and Penistone. For the 1992 general election he was selected as the Conservative candidate for Rutland and Melton, a safe Conservative seat, which he retained with a 59% share of the votes cast. In the Labour landslide of 1997, his proportion of the vote was reduced to 46% but has since increased to 48% in 2001, 51% in 2005 and 51% in 2010.
From 1993 to 1995, Duncan was a member of the Social Security Select Committee. His first governmental position was as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Health, a position he obtained in December 1993. He resigned from the position within a month after it emerged that he had used the right-to-buy programme to make profits on property deals. It emerged that he had lent his elderly next door neighbour money to buy his home under the right-to-buy legislation. The neighbour bought the 18th century council house at a significant discount and sold it to Duncan just over three years later. Gyles Brandreth describes this event in his diary as "little Alan Duncan has fallen on his sword. He did it swiftly and with good grace."
After returning to the backbenches, he became Chairman of the Conservative Backbench Constitutional Affairs Committee. He returned to government in July 1995, when he was again appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Brian Mawhinney. In November 1995, Duncan performed a citizen's arrest on an Asylum Bill protester who threw paint and flour at Mawhinney on College Green.
Duncan was involved in the 1997 leadership contest, being the right-hand man of William Hague, the eventual winner. In this capacity, he was called 'the closest thing [the Conservatives] have to Peter Mandelson'. Duncan and Hague had both been at Oxford, both been Presidents of the Oxford Union, and had been close friends since at least the early 1980s.
As a reward for his loyalty to Hague during the leadership contest, in June 1997, Duncan was entrusted with the positions of Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party and Parliamentary Political Secretary to the Party Leader. In June 1998 he became Shadow Health Minister. In June 1999 he was made Shadow Trade and Industry spokesman. In September 2001 he was appointed a Front Bench Spokesman on Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
When Michael Howard became Conservative party leader in November 2003, Duncan became Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, but as Howard had significantly reduced the size of the Shadow Cabinet, Duncan was not promoted to the top table. This continued to be the case when he was moved to become Shadow Secretary of State for International Development in September 2004. However, following the 2005 general election, the Shadow Cabinet was expanded to its original size once more, and Duncan joined it as Shadow Secretary of State for Transport.
He held this position for just seven months, becoming Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on 7 December 2005, after David Cameron's election to the party leadership the previous day. On 2 July 2007, he was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, as new prime minister Gordon Brown had abolished the Department of Trade and Industry the previous week, replacing it with the aforementioned new department. In January 2009 he became Shadow Leader of the House of Commons.
Before the 2005 general election, Duncan was rumoured to be planning a leadership campaign in the event that then-leader Michael Howard stepped down after a (then-likely and later actual) election defeat. On 10 June 2005, Duncan publicly declared his intention of standing in the 2005 leadership election. However, on 18 July 2005, he withdrew from the race, admitting in The Guardian that his withdrawal was due to a lack of 'active lieutenants', and urged the party to abandon those that he dubbed the 'Tory Taliban':
Our Achilles heel, though, has been our social attitude. Censorious judgmentalism from the moralising wing, which treats half our own countrymen as enemies, must be rooted out. We should take J. S. Mill as our lodestar, and allow people to live as they choose until they actually harm someone. If the Tory Taliban can't get that, they'll condemn us all to oblivion. Thank heavens for the new intake of MPs who do.
On 15 May 2009, the satirical BBC programme Have I Got News for You showed footage of Duncan's previous appearance on the show in which he boasted about his second home allowance, denied that he should pay any of the money back and stated it was "a great system". The show then cut to footage of David Cameron announcing that Duncan would return money to the fees office, followed by Duncan's personal apology, in which he called for the system to be changed.
On 14 August, Duncan said (whilst being filmed without his knowledge by Don't Panic), that MPs, who were at the time paid around £64,000 a year, were having, "to live on rations and are treated like shit. I spend my money on my garden and claim a tiny fraction on what is proper. And I could claim the whole lot, but I don't." These remarks attracted the attention of the press, and were criticised by commentators from all sides. Duncan apologised once more, and Cameron, though critical of Duncan's comments, denied that he would sack him from the Shadow Cabinet. Despite these assurances, on 7 September 2009, Duncan was "demoted" from the Shadow Cabinet, to become Shadow Minister for Prisons, after he and Cameron came to an agreement that his position was untenable.
The Rutland and Melton Constituency Association has received £12,166.66 in donations since 2006. Duncan has received corporate donations from The Biz Club (£6,000, 2006–09), Midland Software Holdings Ltd (£8,000, 2007–09), and ABM Holdings Limited (£1,500, 2009). Duncan has also had tens of thousands of pounds from private individual donors.
According to The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, to assess the possible policies of a future Conservative government, American Intelligence drew up a dossier on several members of that party, including Duncan. It compiled details of his political associations with leading Conservatives, including William Hague. The cable called for further intelligence on "Duncan's relationship with Conservative party leader David Cameron and William Hague", and asked: "What role would Duncan play if the Conservatives form a government? What are Duncan's political ambitions?"
As shadow business secretary in 2008, Duncan stated, referring to the Hinkley Point C project, that "on no account should there be any kind of subsidy for nuclear power."
In August 2011 he found himself under pressure to remove a video of himself accusing Israel of a "land grab" in the occupied territories. In an October 2014 speech to the Royal United Services Institute Duncan said: "Indeed just as we rightly judge someone as unfit for public office if they refuse to recognise Israel, so we should shun anyone who refuses to recognise settlements are illegal. No settlement endorsers should be regarded as fit to stand for public office, remain a member of a mainstream political party or sit in a parliament. How can we accept lawmakers in our country or any other country when they support lawbreakers in another?" In a BBC Radio interview linked to that speech and another given during a House of Commons debate on Palestinian statehood he said: "All know that the United States is in hock to a very powerful financial lobby which dominates its politics." Commenting on Duncan's statements, a spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews called him "breathtakingly one-sided".
In August 2011, it was reported that Duncan had played an instrumental role in blocking fuel supplies to Tripoli, Libya, during the Libyan conflict. In April 2011, the former oil trader convinced the UK prime minister to establish the so-called 'Libyan oil cell' which was run out of the Foreign Office.
The cell advised NATO to blockade the port of Zawiya to stifle Gaddafi's war effort. They also helped identify other passages the smugglers were using to get fuel into Libya via Tunisia and Algeria.
London-based oil traders were encouraged to sell fuel to rebels in Benghazi, with communication being established between traders and the rebels to route the fuel.
One Whitehall source commented: 'The energy noose tightened around Tripoli's neck. It was much more effective and easier to repair than bombs. It is like taking the key of the car away. You can't move. The great thing is you can switch it all back on again if Gaddafi goes. It is not the same as if you have bombed the whole city to bits.
On 28 May 2010 he was appointed to the Privy Council upon the formation of the Coalition government.
Duncan is a moderate libertarian. The Guardian has variously described him as 'economically libertarian' and 'socially libertarian'. He has been described as the 'liberal, urbane face of the Conservative Party'. He is a moderniser within the Conservative Party.
One of the chapters in his book Saturn's Children is devoted to an explanation of his support for the legalisation of all drugs. This chapter was removed when the paperback edition was published to prevent embarrassment to the Party leadership. The omitted chapter was available on Duncan's personal website; however, as of 2011 it no longer appears. He believes in minimising the size of government, and in Saturn’s Children advocated limiting government responsibility to essential services such as defence, policing and health. In 2002, he was described by the BBC as a "staunch" Eurosceptic. However, he declared for the 'Remain' camp in the run-up to the UK's referendum on EU membership.
He is on the council of the Conservative Way Forward (CWF) group. He is one of the leading British members of Le Cercle, a secretive foreign policy discussion forum. In contrast with most members of both CWF and Le Cercle, who hold pro-Republican Atlanticist views, he actively supported John Kerry in the US 2004 presidential election. This surprised some, but Duncan is a friend of Kerry, having met him whilst at Harvard.
Following the release of the Panama Papers, which contained revelations about David Cameron's income from overseas funds set up by his father, Duncan defended the Prime Minister. He urged Cameron's critics, especially MPs, to "admit that their real point is that they hate anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them" from whose viewpoint followed that "we risk seeing a House of Commons which is stuffed full of low-achievers". Michael Deacon wrote in The Daily Telegraph: "There are two inferences to draw from Sir Alan’s outburst. One is that he thinks the Commons should only be 'stuffed with' the rich. The second is that he thinks the vast majority of his constituents, not being rich, are 'low-achievers'. Probably not a view to advertise in his next election leaflet".
Duncan was the first sitting Conservative MP voluntarily to acknowledge that he is gay; he did this in an interview with The Times on 29 July 2002, although he has said that this came as no surprise to friends. Indeed, in an editorial published on the news of Duncan's coming out, The Daily Telegraph reported, "The news that Alan Duncan is gay will come as a surprise only to those who have never met him. The bantam Tory frontbencher can hardly be accused of having hidden his homosexuality."
On 3 March 2008, it was announced in the Court & Social page of The Daily Telegraph that Duncan would be entering into a civil partnership with his partner James Dunseath, which would make him the first member of either the Cabinet or the Shadow Cabinet to enter into a civil partnership. The two were joined as civil partners on 24 July 2008 at Merchant Taylors' Hall in the City of London.
Duncan has a committed following in the gay community and is active in speaking up for gay rights. He was responsible for formulating the Conservatives' policy response to the introduction of civil partnership legislation in 2004, which he considered his proudest achievement of the Parliament between 2001 and 2005. He was among those who rebelled against his party by voting for an equal age of consent between heterosexuals and homosexuals on numerous occasions between 1998 and 2000. However, he voted against same-sex adoption in 2001.1957 – 1992: Mr Alan James Carter Duncan
1992 – 2010: Mr Alan James Carter Duncan MP
2010 – 2014: The Right Honourable Alan James Carter Duncan MP
2014 – present: The Right Honourable Sir Alan James Carter Duncan KCMG MP
He has written two books: An End To Illusions (Demos, 1993) ISBN 1-898309-05-1, and Saturn’s Children: How the State Devours Liberty, Prosperity and Virtue [with Dominic Hobson], (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995) ISBN 1-85619-605-4. The latter book presents a detailed case regarding the history and consequences of government control over institutions and activities which were historically private, to the extent that many citizens assume that privately or communally developed municipal facilities and universities are creations of the state, and that prohibitions on drug use, sex, and personal defence have always existed.
Duncan has appeared four times on the satirical news quiz Have I Got News For You: first appearing on 28 October 2005, then 20 October 2006, and again on 2 May 2008 and 24 April 2009. His 2009 appearance featured a badly received ironic joke about murdering the latest Miss California, who stated that she opposed same-sex marriages. He has appeared on many occasions as a panellist on BBC TV's Question Time and BBC Radio 4's Any Questions? In 2006, he took part in a documentary entitled How to beat Jeremy Paxman.