For Alistair Darling, the timing could have been better. There's the government, preparing to shower cash on Britain's 11 million pensioners - and yet, in his big speech to the party conference, he is not allowed to give the details; they will have to wait for the pre-Budget report. So, having taken the rap for cuts in disability benefit last year, and for the miserly 75p increase in the basic pension this year, Darling is still not allowed to become, quite literally, the Conference Darling. Inside and outside the conference hall in Brighton, there is still fury about the failure to restore the link between pensions and average earnings. He seems resigned to his ritual humiliation: "I'm used to it. You don't come here [meaning the Department of Social Security] if you want to be the most popular member of the Cabinet. A lot of what happens here, by its nature, is never going to be popular."
It used to be said that Defence was the graveyard portfolio for Labour politicians; now the DSS, which everyone else wants to squeeze for savings, has replaced it. Darling is phlegmatic: "The Department of Social Security is an extremely enjoyable ministry. Is this the obvious place to be if I was a career politician? No, it's not. But I'm not a career politician, so I don't worry about it." Not a career politician? This from the man who has been popping up all over the place to defend the government - on tax, on fuel prices and on the Ecclestone affair - cool under fire, a very safe pair of hands.
Yet, despite his increasing prominence, Darling has clearly been wondering what it's all for. His family - the engaging and doughty former journalist Maggie Vaughan, and their two children - lives in Edinburgh. Darling returns there at the weekend, but is frantically busy for the rest of the week in London. As a proud father, he is clearly beginning to find the situation intolerable.
New Labour has made much of the work-life balance; how does he work that one out for himself? "It's an increasing problem," he admits. "The only solution is for me to stop doing what I'm doing." "Yes," I prod gently, wondering if a Cabinet minister is about to resign before my very eyes, "so are you thinking of doing that?" His reply is negative, but not the forceful denial I was expecting: "No, I'm not, but my children are nine and 12, and every Monday morning is an increasing wrench." Clearly, as for so many parents, Darling is finding the separation much harder than it used to be when the children were smaller. "I've been an MP for 13 years. It was OK at the start because there were no children . . . and then, when they're babies, they don't actually notice. But now it is a wrench; there are times when I think that all I've got is access. I don't see them during the week; I'm never there."
It is highly unusual for a top politician to be so honest. Mo Mowlam, just weeks before she announced her departure, publicly insisted that she had no thoughts of going. Had her decision, I wondered, influenced Darling's thinking at all? It had clearly given him something to reflect on. He even sounded a little envious. "Politicians have a limited shelf life, and I suppose one of the nice things for Mo is that she has chosen when to go, like George Robertson [who resigned to become secretary-general of Nato]. I remember George Robertson saying he was one of the few Cabinet ministers to know he was attending his last meeting." For Darling, who turns 47 next month, it's clearly an attractive way of doing things. Was he thinking of "doing a Mo?", of quitting at 50? Yes, evidently. "I've no plans at the moment," he says. "I'm enjoying doing what I'm doing. But politics isn't a career, and I don't see it as a career. I've always thought that I would practise what I've been preaching, and that life begins at 50. There are other things you can go and do."
Darling relishes his other life, his home in Edinburgh and his family. Heaven for him is pottering about in a small boat in the Hebrides. It all seems a long way from London, which he dislikes, and his weekend life keeps him in touch with what the country is really thinking. "I know how things are going for the government by the way my constituents look at me or greet me." How are the greetings at the moment? "I think we need to do better," he says, with a wry grin. "I was in Edinburgh last week, and you can tell - and it's patently obvious from the polls - that the government has taken a knock. But what I don't get from people is that we think Hague can do better."
What of his image? I tease him about being the absolute epitome of the "grey men", the ones on the way up in Blair's Cabinet. In fact, his hair is now almost white, starkly contrasted by his black eyebrows, but the effect, it has to be admitted, is of greyness. He responds quite sharply. "I wonder how much the general public is worrying about how much ministers in the government are colourful or not. If you're looking at how much child benefit you get, it doesn't make it any better whether it's coming from someone who is colourful or someone who is grey."
Yet Darling is, by his own admission, a technocrat. He speaks of being a pragmatist, interested only in whether something works. His analysis of the holes in recent Tory spending plans is quietly devastating. He is equally scathing about those who have been making the emotive call for the link between pensions and earnings to be restored. "Restore the earnings link takes half a sentence to say . . . but look at what we're doing." Exactly what the government is doing remains blurred. Darling is quite clear that the "transitional" rise for pensioners will be much more than £2 a week, but he won't say just how much: "Gordon's speech set out the parameters. He made absolutely clear our determination to make sure that we boost pensioner incomes, but the detail will come in the pre-Budget report."
He comes as close as a politician can to admitting that this year's 75p increase in pensions was a mistake and, although the finger could easily be pointed at the Chancellor, is prepared to put his own hands up. "I perfectly well understand people's criticisms and concerns. It is a fact of life. If people blame us, then I take responsibility for it: I'm responsible for anything the DSS does; I'm responsible for pensions policy; I'm responsible for the 75 pence, I accept that. The important thing is to make sure we move on from that, and that we do the right thing, so that there will be clear water, at the time of the next election, between us and the Tories."
Although the government has bowed to public opinion on pensions, Darling is adamant that he should not have gone further and restored the earnings link. "You have a choice, you can do the easy thing, or you can do what I believe is the right thing. In this parliament, we've spent far more than it costs to restore the earnings link, but we've done it in a way that half the amount of money we've spent has gone to the poorest pensioners, and that must be the right approach. Restoring the earnings link doesn't help the poorest pensioners, because they lose it pound by pound in benefit testing."
It is precisely because of his reputation as a safe pair of hands that Darling was appointed to Social Security after the unhappy partnership between Harriet Harman and Frank Field ended in tears. So what happened to "thinking the unthinkable" about social security, as Frank Field had been brought in to do? Darling has no time for that. "It's easy to 'think the unthinkable', but the big test is whether it works. This department deals with 70 per cent of the population, and whatever you do on pensions takes 30, 40, 50 years to work through. You can't experiment on people, you've got to have plans that work. We are judged on what delivers, rather than on what might make a terribly interesting article in an academic magazine or learned journal. People come up with extremely exotic and unusual ideas, but usually they don't work."
Behind all this pragmatism, I ask, is there any idealism? Does he have a vision that drives him? "I've a vision of a country where everyone can get on, where everybody has got a chance. Of course you've got to have a vision, we're not just managers. You have to have a goal in life. The goal must be that our government will be judged as a government which began to change the outlook of opportunity for people in this country, so that it's not just a few who got on, but that everybody got on."
It's all good new Labour stuff - the many not the few, that kind of thing. If there is no sense of a burning drive to achieve social justice, you have to remember that Darling is an Edinburgh lawyer, a set known for their dry wit and understated rhetoric, rather than passionate advocacy. He is, undoubtedly, out to change things in social security, and realises the difficulties that come with it. "One of the problems with social security is that there are basically two halves of the country - there are people who believe you don't spend enough and people who believe you spend too much."
Which is he? Darling is equivocal. "I'm ever the pragmatist - we were spending too much on unemployed people . . . I'd like to spend more on children and pensions. And we will spend more on children and pensions, but I'd like to spend a lot less on people who are on the dole."
It's a softly, softly approach. First, the government has targeted the poorest pensioners. The next priority, Darling believes, is to do more for those on very modest middle incomes.
And, despite the bad press it is getting now, he is convinced that the government will be proved right on pensions by the time of the next election. It is why he carries on. "I'm not interested in being here for the sake of it. You can justify it only if you're doing something worthwhile." For now, Darling clearly believes that the personal sacrifices he makes are worth it. That this highly competent, intelligent and sane new Labour minister is having doubts about the future, and is prepared to say so, should give Tony Blair cause for concern.