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?

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.