By no stretch of the imagination can Alistair Darling be regarded as a chancellor who has chalked up unalloyed triumphs. The fumbled nationalisation of Northern Rock, the perceived U-turns on capital gains and the taxation of non-doms and the sharp deterioration in the public finances have framed him, in the public mind, as inept.
Indeed, a YouGov poll found that 44 per cent of those surveyed believe that Darling, once regarded as new Labour’s “safe pair of hands”, should be fired. Only 27 per cent of those polled could bring themselves to support him staying at the Treasury. In the City, where opinion turns on a sixpence, the calls for his head have become shrill. New Labour’s traditional enemies have detected weakness and have pounced upon it.
Following Gordon Brown at the Treasury was always going to be a difficult task, even for someone who gave the appearance of being as calm as Darling. But no one could have predicted the opprobrium that has been heaped upon him.
Once Brown, with all his bustling ambition, had gone to No 10, all those critics and commentators who feared to cross the former chancellor saw his successor as an easy target. This has led to some very unfortunate comparisons for the current incumbent at No 11. In recent weeks Darling has variously been described as the worst chancellor since the late Anthony Barber and Norman Lamont. Neither comparison bears much scru tiny. Barber and Lamont were Tories and both held office for several years before shortcomings became apparent.
Barber’s “Competition and Credit Control” unleashed the first great inflation and the secondary banking collapse of 1974-75. In that crisis the Bank of England, still in charge of financial supervision, launched a secret rescue of the kind which might have saved Darling the embarrassment of Northern Rock. However, even Darling’s most bitter opponents cannot blame him for a Barber-style credit explosion.
As for Lamont, he presided over a huge public sector debt and the UK’s chaotic exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, when interest rates went up and down like a Yo-yo as the chancellor famously sang in the bath.
Many of Darling’s problems stem from next door at No 10. When Brown became Prime Minister he removed some of the Treasury’s most skilled operators. On the ministerial front the biggest loss was the economic secretary, Ed Balls, in effect the City minister, who spent much of his time responding to the complaints of the Square Mile. There was also an outflow of senior officials, including John Cunliffe, Tom Scholar (now back), Michael Ellam and the gung-ho special adviser Damian McBride.
Brown rushed next door so quickly that he failed to clear his desk. Among the issues he left behind were two long-standing, delicate tax questions surrounding the super-rich. Huge anger was building in the media and in the Commons over the exploitation of tax loopholes by the private equity princelings – tearing the heart out of Brit ish business – and non-domiciled freeloaders.
The Prime Minister must also take his share of the blame for the Northern Rock fiasco. In the aftermath of the nationalisation decision, Brown in particular sought to depict the implosion at the Newcastle bank as part of a much broader international event. At his regular Downing Street press conference there was much talk of obscure branches of finance – US monolines, for instance, which insure financial instruments such as bonds.
Brown was right to point out that the credit crunch which struck on 9 August was born in America’s trailer-trash mortgage market. But it was changes made by Brown to Britain’s system of regulation in 1997 that led to months of dith ering, uncertainty, charges of incompetence and eventually, when all other escape routes had been closed, nationalisation.
The “Tripartite” system of regulation was designed by Brown and Balls. The intention was to remove responsibility for banking supervision from the Bank of England, so that it could concentrate on its core function of controlling inflation. Bank supervision was moved lock, stock and barrel to the new super-regulator, the Financial Services Authority at Canary Wharf.
But there was a fundamental flaw in the system. The Bank of England, like all central banks, controlled the liquidity – the ability to provide cash to institutions in difficulty – but it was the ineffectual FSA that determined when they were in trouble. This disconnection meant that no one was directly in charge and when Northern Rock hit the buffers because it ran out of ready cash, no one was willing to organise the kind of rescue by the banking industry that is the norm in almost every other country. This even though there was at least one offer on the table, from Lloyds TSB, the high street bank.
A member of the Bank of England’s ruling court told me that as important as the institutional paralysis were the people at the helm. Imagine if (Lord) Eddie George were still governor of the Bank of England, Howard Davies (now at the London School of Economics) were head of the FSA and Brown were still at the Treasury. For sure, the willpower and leadership required for a secret banking rescue, which would have prevented the humiliating run on the Rock, would have been present.
Instead, the Bank, the FSA and the Treasury all seemed intent in mid-September to avoid responsibility and blame for a debacle that would run on until February. Again Brown must take a share of the blame. It was he who insisted that every private-sector route be explored before nationalisation took place, on the grounds that public ownership was too old Labour, a throwback to the dark days of the Wilson government and British Leyland and British Steel in the 1970s. Yet the long delays in taking firm decisions gave the impression of a vacillating administration that found it impos sible to make the tough political choice until all other options had run out.
Darling is also the victim of fundamental Budget failings. Brown, despite his reputation as the “iron chancellor”, had taken his eye off fiscal policy, and public borrowing was soaring. The time to cut the Budget deficit is when the economy is growing. Instead, Brown chose to go on a public spending splurge in a vain attempt to deal with the problems of the NHS and education.
His ability to spend freely was heavily dependent on buoyant tax income, much of it from the City. Unfortunately, when the credit crunch set in, tax income from banks and those who work for them plummeted and a chasm opened up in the Budget. At the very moment when the Treasury might have adopted the Keynesian solution of spending or tax-cutting its way out of recession – as the International Monetary Fund now recommends – Darling found his hands tied.
As a consequence, when he delivers his first Budget next month, Darling will have to explain away a budgetary black hole similar to that faced by Norman Lamont when he introduced Britain’s biggest ever tax-raising Budget in 1993. Not a comparison that Darling will relish.
Yet it was the unresolved tax issues that have been the real undoing of Darling. The rushed pre-Budget report in October took the decisive steps to tax the super-rich. Capital gains tax was to be simplified and raised from 10 per cent to 18 per cent. And Labour, stealing and wearing Tory clothes, would impose a £30,000 charge on the non-doms.
It is what followed that so damaged Darling’s reputation. The City, supported by the CBI, the Financial Times and the Telegraph, launched a vitriolic campaign against both proposals, claiming they would destroy London’s leadership as a financial centre and send the private equity princelings and non-doms fleeing to Monaco and Switzerland. Proposals that enjoyed the support of millions of ordinary, hard-working, taxpaying Britons were being attacked by a small clique of vested interests.
Was it avoidable?
In both cases the pressure on the Chancellor became so strong that No 10 orchestrated retreats which left Darling looking weak and indecisive. In the case of non-doms, Darling was specifically undermined by one from Brown’s government of all the talents, the excitable former CBI boss Digby Jones – the trade minister.
Could all of this have been avoided? A more robust chancellor could have taken on his critics, rather than allow them to dominate the agenda. The private equity bosses and non-doms have no political constituency in the UK, apart from the disgraced bankers of the City. Yet the reality is that the tax retreats were not humiliating U-turns, as portrayed in lurid headlines, but mid-course adjustments of the kind that happen with all complex tax changes.
The assassination of Darling by a peculiar combination of forces from next door at No 10, the CBI and sections of the media has not been pretty to watch. They sensed weakness and attacked relentlessly. His image will not have been helped by his muddled media appearances after the nationalisation of Northern Rock was announced. As jobs in Newcastle are axed by his chosen company doctor, Ron Sandler, Darling may well come to regret the phrase “business as usual”. It is also likely that “temporary” ownership could mean anything up to a decade, given the history of previous bank nationalisations on both sides of the Atlantic.
Darling needs to find the inner reserves to take on his enemies in the Budget on 12 March. Most importantly, he must stake out an aggressive, US-style growth strategy for keeping recession at bay. Otherwise he will find his survival at the Treasury foreshortened and could join the hall of horrors of Britain’s worst chancellors.
Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail