Darling holds his nerve

The Chancellor's refusal to panic has won him respect, but his biggest test still lies ahead

So the government has ripped up the new Labour rule-book with a return to redistributive taxation, nationalisation and work-creation schemes. The same spinners who once laid burnt offerings at the feet of the gods of the free market now sing the praises of state intervention.

In this world turned upside down, one government figure has been consistent in his reading of the situation. From the early summer, Alistair Darling has been saying that we are living through the gravest economic crisis the country has faced since the first half of the 20th century, and that the government must do all it can to protect the British people from the effects of the storm.

The Chancellor began his statement on this week's pre-Budget report in apocalyptic terms, speaking of an "unprecedented global crisis". There was a time when he would have been accused of talking down the economy. Such an idea now seems absurd. At the end of August, during his infamous interview with the Guardian's Decca Aitkenhead, the Chancellor merely said that economic conditions were "arguably the worst they've been in 60 years". The only quibble now with Darling's assessment would be that he ever judged that it was "arguable". At the time, the sky fell in on Darling, with a series of attacks that included disgraceful briefings from Gordon Brown's allies against the Prime Minister's most loyal lieutenant. In fact, Darling had been warning of the seriousness of the situation for almost three months. In an interview with the New Statesman in early June, he said: "If you ask fundamentally what's changed . . . self-evidently it's the credit crunch . . . The IMF has said that it is the biggest shock to the world's economic systems since the 1930s."

It is hard to think of a historical political figure who has survived such a battering, from oil price rises to a bank collapse

Watching Darling's performance in the Commons on Monday, what was striking was his extraordinary calm. Some have put this down to his background as an Edinburgh lawyer, but this isn't an adequate explanation. Just before the £500bn banking bailout in October, a journalist was overheard asking Darling how he remained so unruffled in such turbulent times. He said it was the wrong question, adding: "Now is not the time to panic." He has not panicked, yet. At the height of the briefing campaign against him, he also held his nerve. Darling is popular among political journalists and despite his identification as a "Brownite", he is seen as a non-sectarian figure in Westminster.

There is still the distinct possibility that the PBR will unravel (and the news that the Treasury considered raising VAT to 18.5 per cent does not help matters). Some within the Labour family salute the aims of giving the economy a £21bn boost, while wondering whether it will be enough. But few are turning their fire on Darling himself. For example, Frank Field, the leader of the 10p tax rebels, said he believes the fiscal stimulus may yet turn out to be inadequate. But he recognised that Darling had been clever not to put a limit on how long the measures would take to work. "Alistair has given himself all the time in the world," he said. "Now he will just keep saying that the measures need to be given the chance to work."

There is no doubt now that Darling stays calm under pressure. It is hard to think of a historical political figure who has survived such a battering. Quite apart from the collapse of the banking system and a vicious campaign to undermine him from within his own party, the Chancellor has dealt with Northern Rock, the loss of computer disks from H M Revenue & Customs containing the personal data of 25 million individuals, fierce criticism of his decisions on capital gains tax and corporation tax, the stagnation of the housing market, wild fluctuations in the prices of oil and huge rises in the cost of household fuel.

There is at least one area where Darling remains vulnerable, however, and that is over the policy to abolish the 10p tax rate, which he inherited when his predecessor left for No 10. In the PBR, Darling announced an increase of personal tax allowances by £130 a year to soften the impact on those who lost out. But the real question for the Labour high command should be whether this will be enough. If backbenchers feel renewed pressure from their constituents on this issue, the possibility of a rebellion over the Budget in the spring will re-emerge.

The revival in the fortunes of the man at No 11 coincides with a new sense of direction throughout Downing Street. The National Economic Council has helped open up dialogue between departments and there is no longer the feeling that cabinet ministers are huddled in their individual silos. The increasing influence of the affable MP for West Bromwich East, Tom Watson, since his appointment to the Cabinet Office at the start of the year, has helped stamp out some of the more thuggish briefings. And despite differences over the emphasis of the PBR, the Treasury and No 10 are said to be working well together.

A new test of Darling's nerve will come in the new year when unemployment begins to bite. If the news bulletins are led every day by job losses up and down the country, Labour backbenchers are already talking about being afraid to show their faces in public. Darling has demonstrated his integrity over the course of the past year and consistently delivered a brutally honest assessment of the economic crisis. But if unemployment hits three million in 2009, these qualities will count for nothing.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.