Meet the woman who put lead in Darling's pencil

Former chancellor settles scores in his must-read memoir on Labour's dying days – but did his 'firebrand' wife, Maggie, egg him on?
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Indy Politics

It is billed as the must-read book of the political season: Alistair Darling's memoirs, in which he settles scores with Gordon Brown dating from their troubled time in Downing Street.

But there was speculation last night that Mr Darling's indomitable wife, Maggie, played just as much a part in writing the book, Back from the Brink, as did the former chancellor himself.

A family friend, asked how much input Mrs Darling had, said last night that she "as usual kept him fed and watered". Whether that is a euphemism for Mrs Darling co-writing the memoirs is unclear. But those who have read the book, published by Atlantic Books next week, say there are some passages that are so well-written they could only have been penned by the former journalist, rather than her rather staid husband.

What is more, the boldness of the attacks on Mr Brown, and his ally Ed Balls, from the normally even-handed MP have fuelled speculation that Mrs Darling ensured the book set the record straight on the dying months of the Labour government.

Extracts serialised in The Sunday Times today reveal that Mr Darling met David Milibamd, then Foreign Secretary, in 2009 to discuss how to oust Mr Brown from office. He wrote: "We wanted to discuss whether there was any way of getting rid of Gordon... That afternoon, we came to a pretty unsatisfactory political conclusion: that Gordon wouldn't leave; that there was no alternative leader in prospect; and that there was an inevitability that we must just soldier on."

Mrs Darling's key role will come as little surprise to those who know her. During a visit by the US President and his wife in 2009, Michelle Obama spent time chatting to Mrs Darling at a Downing Street reception, and later summed her up as a "true Scottish firebrand".

That same year, Mrs Darling raged at leaks from No 10 that her husband was about to be replaced by Ed Balls, saying: "The fucking bastards are trying to stitch up Alistair!"

Mrs Darling, a former journalist for the Daily Record and Glasgow Herald, certainly played a part in stiffening her husband's resolve in the face of what the former minister claims was a concerted attempt to isolate him in the Treasury. In the end, the Prime Minister kept Mr Balls in his post as Schools Secretary, while Mr Darling remained at 11 Downing Street.

During his time as Chancellor, Mr Darling kept a lid on the tensions between him and Mr Brown until, in a TV interview shortly before the 2010 election, he revealed that the "forces of hell" had been unleashed on him by Mr Brown's allies in Downing Street after he predicted in August 2008 that Britain was facing the worst recession for 60 years.

In Mr Darling's final Budget, in March 2010, he was under pressure by the PM to spend extra money on election giveaways – but the Chancellor managed to hold his ground. The memoirs are also said to include a quote from Tony Blair that working with Mr Brown was like having "dental treatment with no anaesthetic". Mr Darling also accuses Mr Balls of running a parallel operation to the Treasury to undermine him. Mr Darling is also reported to detail fierce clashes with Mr Brown over the need for spending cuts, a move the then Chancellor favoured. Recalling one such heated exchange, Mr Darling writes: "Speaking truth to power never came into it."

Mr Brown has declined to comment on the memoirs, while the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said Mr Darling had a "perfect right" to write his book.

During their time at No 11, Mrs Darling was a warm, chatty hostess at receptions, often opening the door to guests herself – and holding parties for children. The Darlings have been married for 25 years and have a son, Calum, and a daughter, Hannah, both grown up. During Mr Darling's early political career, after his election as an MP in 1987, the couple spent little time together, as Mrs Darling stayed in Edinburgh, where she worked as a journalist. It was only when he became Chancellor in 2007, with a grace and favour Downing Street apartment, that the couple lived together full-time.

She is not the only political spouse to have injected steel into the spine of a mild-mannered husband. One of Mr Darling's predecessors, Geoffrey Howe, had Elspeth, now Lady Howe, at his side when he wrote his resignation speech of November 1990, which marked the tipping point in the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Some insiders say Lady Howe even wrote the speech in which her husband savaged the then PM, likening her approach to British negotiations on the EU to "sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find... that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain".

How to get even in print

Tony Blair

A Journey (2010)

No punches pulled, Blair accused Gordon Brown of having "zero" emotional intelligence and no "political feelings". He also said Team Brown could have won the election "had it not abandoned New Labour".

Robin Cook

The Point of Departure (2003)

A diary charting the run-up to the Iraq War, over which Cook resigned. The former Labour minister claimed Tony Blair conceded two weeks before the invasion that Saddam Hussein did not have useable weapons of mass destruction. He also claimed there was a near "mutiny in Cabinet" over Iraq.

Peter Mandelson

The Third Man (2010)

Mandelson not only got his own back on Brown but also on Blair, his long-time political friend, whom he accused of holding him back from having a political career in his own right.

Dick Cheney

In My Time (2011)

Former US vice-president Cheney says secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was naive in talks with North Korea, and had "tearfully" admitted to mistakes in her advice to Bush. "It certainly doesn't sound like me, now, does it?" Rice said last week.

John Major

The Autobiography (1999)

Major used his memoirs to claim his predecessor as PM, Margaret Thatcher, had "warrior characteristics" that were "profoundly un-Conservative", and that she lacked consistency on Europe. "She was capable of changing her mind at bewildering speed," he wrote.

Matt Chorley