Windsurfing to Whitehall: How Alex Allan sailed through a 1980s rail strike

Former independent adviser on ministers’ interests recalls Thames stunt cooked up with photographer pal
Alex Allan reenacts deliberately falling off his windsurf board in a 1980s stunt on the River Thames outside the Houses of Parliament. Screengrab: BBC

By Jim.Dunton

23 Jun 2022

Boris Johnson’s first standards adviser, Sir Alex Allan, has been in the news after his successor, Christopher Geidt, walked out on the prime minister in a similarly dramatic style.

Forty years ago, Allan hit the headlines in a different – and less politically loaded – way when he was photographed windsurfing to Whitehall to beat an early 1980s rail strike.

At the time, the young civil servant worked at the Treasury and lived near the River Thames in southwest London.

Speaking about the photographs, against the backdrop of a new wave of rail strikes, Allan was frank that they were a bit of a wheeze to help out a photographer pal.

But the stunt – complete with a windsurf sail sporting the logo of Allan’s beloved counterculture rock band the Grateful Dead – clearly didn’t harm his career. He went on to become principal private secretary to chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson in 1986 and was PPS to John Major from 1992 to 1997,  then for Tony Blair during the first months of his premiership following New Labour’s landslide election win 25 years ago.

His CV also includes stints as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, British high commissioner to Australia, and chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

In 2011 he was appointed as independent adviser on ministers’ interests by then-prime minister David Cameron. Allan quit the role in November 2020 when Boris Johnson did not accept his finding that home secretary Priti Patel had bullied her staff and broken the ministerial code in the process.

Allan was asked about his windsurfing antics at the tail end of an interview on the BBC’s Newscast programme last week, and recounted the story behind the famous pictures, taken by Ken Towner.

“My neighbour was an Evening Standard photographer… well, he was actually freelance but he did some work for the Evening Standard,” Allan said.

“He and I were having a beer just before a rail strike and hit upon the idea that it could be fun to do this. And he got his editor to agree to hiring a boat.

“I hired a bowler hat and a jacket, striped trousers and all the image of what a civil servant should look like. And a rolled-up umbrella.”

One snag stood in the way, however.

“There was very little wind,” Allan explained. “So the boat had to tow me all the way from Putney, where we were living, to Westminster and then I sailed up and down for a bit while he – Ken – took photos.”

Basic mission accomplished, the pair looked to raise their game.

“I said ‘would you like me to fall in?’ and he said ‘oh, yes please!’,” Allan recalled. “So we did a one-two-three jump! And I sort of just plopped back into the Thames. It got quite a big splash in the Evening Standard, and he got a staff job as a result.”

Towner worked at the Standard for another two decades, where he had a strong reputation for recording unusual aspects of life in the capital as well as iconic images of London landmarks. He died in 2020 at the age of 75. 

Elsewhere in his Newscast interview, Allan talked about the pressure he believed Lord Geidt had been under last week and his own reflections on quitting as independent adviser on ministers’ interests.

Allan also voiced exasperation that his own resignation was sometimes framed as the result of Boris Johnson’s failure to sack Priti Patel, based on the findings of his investigation.

“The issue for me was that he rejected the advice that she had breached the code,” he said. “It wasn’t that he hadn’t sacked her. That was entirely up to him.”

Allan told the programme that he was supportive of reforms to the ministerial code that would introduce graduated sanctions for breaches.

He said some minor breaches of the code – such as ministers voicing support for lottery-funding bids for projects in their constituencies – did not seem serious enough to warrant a resignation from government.

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