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24 February 2010

Beware a chancellor scorned

Darling is in the right. Only his timing is questionable.

By James Macintyre

Let’s be clear: Gordon Brown has only himself to blame for the (true) revelation by Alistair Darling that the “forces of hell” were unleashed on him after he correctly predicted, in an interview with Decca Aitkenhead, that the recession would be the worst in 60 years.

Here is the context, from a subsequent interview I did with Darling in January 2009:

Darling could have been forgiven if he had felt a little isolated last August, when a lengthy interview with Decca Aitkenhead for the Guardian took off with the declaration that Britain’s and the world’s economic circumstances were “arguably the worst they’ve been in 60 years”.

At the time, the story added to the sense of crisis around an embattled Brown, some of whose more zealous supporters briefed against the Chancellor off the record. Brown had attempted to talk up the economy, saying it would revive within six months. Northern Rock had been nationalised in February, after the first run on a UK bank in more than a century. Now, it is clear Darling was right.

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“[What] I could see last year was that the problems, which were essentially banking problems, were symptomatic of a much wider problem . . . one that banks all around the world were affected by.”

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Some in Westminster whisper that, in fact, Darling was quicker off the mark in recognising the gravity of the financial crisis that would follow than Brown, who admitted last week that he failed to foresee “the possibility of complete market failure”. Is it true that much of the state intervention, including the bank bailout plan which did so much to revive Brown’s premiership last autumn, were Darling’s ideas, but that Brown took the credit? Darling will only smile modestly, and say: “It was a collective effort.”

As I put it to him at the time, Darling was right and Brown was wrong. Incidentally, the “revelation” that Brown complained to Darling that he felt the economy would recover in six months is not new, as you can see. The undoubted subsequent briefing against Darling — from not just Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan but also, on occasion, Ed Balls, demonstrated the Prime Minister’s dark side. I wrote about that dark side — and McBride and Balls — here and here.

Balls, indeed, was repeatedly attempting to become chancellor, though at the time Darling brushed this aside in talking to me:

[Is] there any substance to the the rumours that Ed Balls, the ambitious Education Secretary, is lobbying his mentor, the Prime Minister, for Darling’s job? The Chancellor is unfazed. “Look, it’s one of these things . . . it’s just not something that is in my mind at the moment.”

Now, clearly, Darling is ready to get his own back. On the one hand, anyone who has actually seen the Sky footage of the interview can see that he was not actually sticking in the knife in the way that was reported. And frankly, Darling has every right to speak out.

On the other hand, the timing is interesting. On Monday, he also gave an interview with Piers Morgan in No 11 for a later issue of GQ magazine. Could it be that he was waiting to speak out once claims of other Brown “bullying” had emerged, waiting for a point of weakness in No 10?

Certainly, Darling has thrown fresh fuel on the “Brown the bully” narrative that was just about fizzling out. Once again, the impression given is that ministers are fighting over the obituary of Labour in office before an election that remains winnable has been fought.