Atlantic Books £19.99
Back From the Brink: 1,000 Days at Number 11, By Alistair Darling
I will not move over – Darling
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 11 September 2011
The reverse sexists assume that this book is stylishly written only because Alistair Darling's wife, Maggie Vaughan, and Catherine McLeod, his special adviser, helped to write it.
I am not so sure. I have always liked Darling's dry wit, and my own unfounded assumption is that the best lines in the book are his own.
Either way, it has some nice observations of the absurdities of high politics. Darling was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury by Tony Blair in 1997 and, "as I left the Cabinet room, I was handed a folder by the Cabinet Secretary. It was empty. He told me that ministers cannot be seen to leave Downing Street empty-handed. I accepted the prop."
Thirteen years later, he was one of only three ministers (Gordon Brown and Jack Straw were the others) to have served in Cabinet for the entire stretch. He nearly didn't, as was well known at the time, and better known now that he has set down his account of how he reluctantly, but with some relief, accepted that Brown was going to replace him as Chancellor – with Ed Balls – in the summer of 2009. That was until James Purnell resigned as the Work and Pensions Secretary. Brown then calculated that sacking his Chancellor would be too dangerous, and changed his mind with all the good grace for which he was renowned: "OK, you can stay."
That episode is central to Darling's book. There were tantalising hints at the time, but now we also know that Darling, the second most powerful member of the Cabinet, thought about "getting rid" of Brown. He thought Brown's refusal to talk about cutting the deficit during the election campaign was a mistake, and that a policy of honesty would be more successful. I wonder about that – it may be that the voters preferred Brown's state of denial. But, because Darling and the rest held back from assassination, Labour got the worst of both worlds. Brown fought an election with a divided party and on a divided platform.
Darling should have resigned, and he as good as admits it: "For any government to operate effectively there has to be complete unity at the top, especially between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor."
After Brown said he could stay in 2009, Darling comments: "There will be those who think that if I had said, 'I've had enough, I'm off', it would have brought him down. It might have done. But I was not prepared to do that. I had supported his leadership .... Also, I feel deep loyalty to the Labour Party. I did not want to damage it any further. There was already a sense of calamity; we were in no fit shape to fight an election. To walk away would have been to absolve myself of collective responsibility for the government."
On the contrary, to have walked away would have fulfilled his responsibility – to ensure that either Brown had his choice as Chancellor or that the country had a new prime minister.
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday
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