Alistair Darling was, until yesterday, the safest of safe pairs of hands in the Cabinet. So why did those hands suddenly and so spectacularly, in the words of George Osborne, "let the cat out of the bag" by revealing Britain is facing the worst economic crisis for 60 years and throw Gordon Brown's fightback off course?
The Chancellor, friends say, does not want to be made the scapegoat for the recession that is almost certain to hit Britain before the end of the year. And if Mr Brown is to be forced out by a leadership challenge in the next few months, Mr Darling is making clear he will not be dragged down with him. He is also serving notice that he is not a Downing Street puppet, and will not be pushed around by the Prime Minister.
Mr Darling's interview with The Guardian was sprinkled with so many vivid insights and digs at Mr Brown that some observers believed it was an off-the-record fireside chat. But yesterday Mr Darling's aides stood by every word, from the description of Cherie Blair's memoirs as "awful" and Wendy Alexander as "not likeable at all", to the gloomy forecast that Britain is on the brink of the worst financial crisis since 1948.
The interview was followed by a television appearance in which he failed three times to deny Mr Brown would face a leadership challenge, fuelling the sense of crisis. It ended a three-week period of relative calm for Mr Brown and his Government, and left the Prime Minister facing the renewed threat of resignations from the Cabinet and a possible challenge to his leadership.
Many in Westminster were debating last night whether the Chancellor had come close to a "Geoffrey Howe moment" – referring to the then deputy Prime Minister's devastating resignation speech to Parliament in November 1990, which hastened Margaret Thatcher's downfall three weeks later.
While Mr Darling has not resigned or stood up in Parliament to condemn his Prime Minister, similarities were being drawn of a normally loyal and monochrome cabinet minister turning into an assassin.
After David Miliband's open challenge to the Prime Minister's authority a month ago, the prospect of Mr Brown facing a leadership crisis appeared to have receded. There was talk of dissidents giving Mr Brown until November, after the Labour conference and a reshuffle, to turn the party's fortunes around – a date Brown supporters laughed off as "yet another deadline which will come and go".
Mr Brown, en route to Beijing a week ago, had confidently asserted that Labour would win the next election. He appeared more relaxed and in control after his three-week holiday. Now a planned relaunch, beginning at the European Council meeting in Brussels tomorrow with a tough message for Russia, and followed by new measures on housing and fuel poverty, has been overshadowed.
Mr Darling's aides did not tell Downing Street that the interview had taken place, and No 10 officials found out about the content very late in the day, insiders said. Rumours of a rift between Mr Darling and the Prime Minister have been circulating in Westminster for months. But the Chancellor put on the record for the first time his frustration at the way the Treasury has been boxed in by Downing Street on the 10p tax fiasco and plans for a stamp duty "holiday".
After his press aide, Catherine MacLeod, instructed Mr Darling to tell the interviewer "everything", the Chancellor criticised those in the Cabinet who are "actively trying" to do his job – a veiled attack on the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, Mr Brown's closest ally in the Cabinet, who wants the top Treasury role.
Mr Darling said: "We've got our work cut out. In 10 months we've gone from doing OK to certainly not doing OK. People are pissed off with us ... The next 12 months are critical ... We patently have not been able to get across what we are for, and what we are about."
Treasury officials have been exasperated at being forced to come up with an economic package to rescue Mr Brown's premiership. Plans include the Government joining forces with energy suppliers to offer free or discounted insulation to the poorest families. They will also highlight the fact that, from this week, all basic-rate income taxpayers will notice an extra £60 in their pay packets – for one month only – as a result of the £2.7bn "compensation" package Mr Darling announced in June to limit the damage caused by the axing of the 10p tax rate.
Mr Darling has also been forced to find a further £500m after scrapping the 2p rise in fuel duty scheduled for this autumn.
Senior sources in the department complain that a string of heavyweights in the Treasury were taken by Mr Brown in the move to Downing Street a year ago, leaving them with little clout in the City.
An aide to Mr Darling insisted last night that the Chancellor's warning of a 60-year economic low – ignoring the three-day week of the 1970s – referred to the global credit crunch. The aide also insisted the Prime Minister remained a "strong political friend" of the Chancellor.
After a tense phone call with the Prime Minister yesterday morning, Mr Darling agreed to a television interview to "clarify" his remarks. But three times he sidestepped the question of whether there would be a leadership challenge, insisting: "I think, at the moment, a lot of my colleagues are focusing on the problems that we need to deal with week to week." He also failed to answer directly whether the Prime Minister's position was safe, saying: "I think Gordon Brown will do a very good job."
Mr Brown's supporters do not regard the Chancellor's intervention as being as treacherous as Mr Miliband's when he set out his stall as a leader-in-waiting. The Foreign Secretary was accused by Brownites of being "disloyal". The difference is Mr Miliband has ambitions to be Prime Minister, while Mr Darling appears to be solely intent on saving his reputation.
A Downing Street official claimed the Prime Minister was "totally relaxed" about Mr Darling's comments. The phrase was similar to the one used by No 10 to describe Mr Miliband's intervention, and insiders said Mr Brown was furious with the Chancellor.
Meanwhile, the rift between supporters of Mr Miliband and Mr Brown has deepened amid claims of a No 10 dirty tricks operation to undermine the Foreign Secretary. Friends of Mr Miliband suspect Downing Street was behind a story in PRWeek on Friday, which showed an "organogram" of the advisers the Foreign Secretary has in place to mount a challenge.
Mr Brown is likely to push ahead with a reshuffle after Labour's party conference. There will also be radical changes to the No 10 team – including the departure of Stephen Carter, the PR guru hired as Mr Brown's chief strategist in January.
Sensitive readers look away now...
Alistair Darling's admission that "people are pissed off with us" can be added to a long list of expletive-ridden quotes from senior politicians.
The most colourful and famous outburst was by Sir Richard Mottram, the permanent secretary at the Department of Transport, in response to news that special adviser Jo Moore had suggested 9/11 was a good day to bury bad news. He said: "We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department's fucked. It's the biggest cock-up ever and we're all completely fucked."
Margaret Beckett was more concise when, in 2006 at the age of 63, she was told by Tony Blair she would be his new Foreign Secretary. She said: "Fuck." When handed the post of Health Secretary in 2003, John Reid said: "Oh fuck no, not health!"
Alastair Campbell, himself no stranger to swearing, was persuaded by Mr Blair to remove swearwords uttered by the Prime Minister from his diaries. But Mr Blair was once reported to North Wales Police for using the phrase the "fucking Welsh" – although the investigation was swiftly dropped.
The language of real-life politics is only marginally less colourful than fiction. In the BBC political sitcom 'The Thick of It', spin doctor Malcolm's favourite phrase is: "Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off."
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