Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Can Darling survive a reshuffle?

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The Independent Online

Will Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, survive the expected ministerial reshuffle the other side of the Crewe by-election? Gordon Brown has to do something to reinvigorate his top team after his disastrous showing in the polls, even if it will look to some like no more than rearranging deck chairs.

To sack Mr Darling would be harsh, since all but one of the mistakes in Treasury policy-making over the last year cannot reasonably be pinned on Mr Darling: they have the Prime Minister's finger prints all over them. Mr Darling was only obeying his master's orders. Yet this is politics and fairness doesn't come into it. Mr Darling is hardly likely to pose a threat to Mr Brown if exiled to the backbenches for reasons of political expediency.

All that said, nobody expects the Chancellor to be sacrificed. Abolition of the 10p income tax rate was Mr Brown's policy, not Mr Darling's. So too were the disastrous non-doms and capital gains tax reforms announced in last autumn's pre-Budget report as a precursor for a planned snap election which the Prime Minister then chickened out of.

The Northern Rock debacle, though obviously a sensational story, is in itself politically unimportant and already largely forgotten. So too in all likelihood is the row about taxation of companies' overseas profits. This very definitely was Mr Darling's blunder, but, beyond contributing to a general impression of negative news, it has little wider political significance.

Peter Mandelson once proclaimed that New Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". On the whole, policy in the past ten years has mirrored these sentiments. Few ordinary voters will feel any community of interest with the growing numbers of business leaders who rather inadvisedly have come leaping out of the closet in a kind of collective rendition of "sing if you're glad to be a tax avoider".

As for the economy, Mr Darling can hardly be blamed for that, even if the official explanation – that it is all caused by problems in the American housing market – isn't believed either. In fact, everyone blames Mr Brown, whose image has bizarrely been transformed from iron Chancellor to one of incompetence and indecisiveness.

In the City, the old truism that good finance directors do not on the whole make good chief executives is widely understood. In politics, it is only just being learned. Scapegoating Mr Darling is hardly likely to reverse perceptions, yet the actions of a politician when cornered are always far from predictable.

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