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17 August 2009

Yes, the Chancellor did threaten to resign . . .

...and the New Statesman broke this story two months ago

By Mehdi Hasan

Page three of the Times today trumpets a seeming scoop by the paper’s political team, as does a box on the front page.

The newspaper’s highly regarded political editor, Philip Webster, writes:

Alistair Darling remained as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the June reshuffle after telling Gordon Brown that he would leave the government rather than move to another job, the Times has learned.

The Chancellor, who is in charge of the government this week while Mr Brown is on holiday, told him that as the Prime Minister he had every right to put whoever he wanted into the Treasury. But his insistence that he would not take another role left Mr Brown powerless to move him.

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. . . The conversation between Mr Darling and Mr Brown took place early in the week of the June European elections, which were followed immediately by the reshuffle.

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There had been widespread reports the previous weekend that Mr Brown was toying with putting his old ally, Mr Balls, into the Treasury. The job switch is known to have been backed privately by Lord Mandelson, who was to emerge from the reshuffle as First Secretary and Mr Brown’s deputy in all but name.

Mr Brown failed to quash speculation that he was thinking of moving Mr Darling, despite being given several opportunities to do so.

It is believed that when the conversation between Mr Darling and Mr Brown took place Mr Brown was ready to offer him the job of Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary or any other senior position.

But Mr Darling pre-empted such offers by making it plain that while it was Mr Brown’s prerogative to bring in someone else, he was not interested in doing another job.

Wait a minute. That sounds familiar. Where have I read that before? Perhaps in a piece James Macintyre and I wrote for the New Statesman back in June, in the immediate wake of the European elections. We wrote then:

The chaotic reshuffle exposed his [Brown’s] lack of authority as never before – so much so, that he even came close to destroying his own government in an attempt to appoint his protégé Ed Balls as chancellor. He offered Balls’s current job of Schools Secretary to James Purnell, sparking the latter’s resignation, and asked Alistair Darling to move over to the Home Office. The New Statesman has learned how close to meltdown the Brown administration came: Darling said he would resign from the cabinet if Brown forced him to move, a resignation that, unlike Purnell’s, would have brought down the government.

Good to see the papers finally starting to catch up with us.

As for Darling, he is now, as the Times rightly points out, in a position of considerable strength – unsackable, even. My favourite line from him came in an interview he gave over the weekend, in which, asked about how it felt to have nearly lost his job, the Chancellor replied: “If you’re in politics, you have to take the rough with the smooth. It actually did not bother me at the time. I’m much more thick-skinned than people think.”

Incidentally, do you know who’s more thick-skinned than the Chancellor? Or MPs in general? Bankers. Their bonuses continue to spiral out of control, and bank bosses are still in denial. Sort ’em out, Darling!


UPDATE: Perhaps a correction is in order. The Times may have finally caught up with us today but the Financial Times seems to have been one step ahead of us all from the very beginning. A friend who works at the paper has emailed to gently nudge me in the direction of this impressive piece by the FT‘s Jean Eaglesham and George Parker, filed on the morning after the European elections, in which the duo reported:

Mr Darling on Thursday night told Mr Brown to his face he did not want to leave the Treasury, setting up a bruising trial of strength with the prime minister who wants to make Ed Balls, his close ally, chancellor.

Mr Darling insisted it would be damaging for financial stability and the economy if he was forced to stand aside; the chancellor is expected to quit the government rather than be demoted to another cabinet job. David Miliband is also resisting a move from his post as foreign secretary.

I suppose it just goes to show how many so-called “scoops” from lobby correspondents are simply recycled or rehashed – especially in August.