Andrew Grice: Chancellor is already thinking beyond the election

Share
Related Topics

When Alistair Darling replaced Gordon Brown as Chancellor in 2007, he was confident that his long-standing partnership with the new Prime Minister would stand him in good stead. He knew there would have to be compromises over his Budgets and major decisions with the man who had occupied the post for 10 years; after all, there is always tension between the occupants of 10 and 11 Downing Street. What Mr Darling did not expect was that he would be rubbished in anonymous briefings to the media by people in the Brown inner circle of which he had believed he was a part. The Chancellor is a team player who doesn't have a burning desire to be the captain and doesn't expect team-mates to kick lumps out of each other.

His anger about such briefings has cooled but it is the most plausible explanation for his remarkable admission in a Sky News interview that the "forces of hell" were unleashed against him when he said in August 2008 that Britain faced "arguably the worst" economic crisis for 60 years. He did not intend his Sky interview to make waves and, with hindsight, knows he should not have accepted the premise of Jeff Randall's persistent questioning about alleged briefings against him by the Brown acolytes Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan. If he had only made clear his "forces of hell" were the Tories and the media, Mr Darling would not have fuelled the damaging "Bullygate" affair sparked by claims that Mr Brown bullied Downing Street staff.

The saga had even been running out of steam on Tuesday, raising Labour's prospects of getting back to normal business and focusing on the narrowing Tory opinion poll lead, with several surveys pointing to a hung parliament. Not only did Mr Darling's interview prolong Mr Brown's agony, it also gave more credence to the claims that Mr Brown bullied No 10 staff.

The official version of events is that the Chancellor's explosive remarks were an accident. Another explanation is that they were an accident waiting to happen.

Although the Brown-Darling relationship has not been as rocky as that between Tony Blair and a Chancellor itching to succeed him, it has proved surprisingly bumpy.

It got off to the worst possible start when Mr Brown hijacked Mr Darling's debut, his 2007 pre-Budget report, insisting on a cut in inheritance tax to man-mark a similar Tory pledge because he was toying with an autumn general election. The election was called off and the cut never happened. But the episode made Mr Darling more determined to be his own man, not a grey appendage of Mr Brown. He was egged on by two strong-willed women: his wife, Maggie, a former journalist, and his new special adviser, Catherine MacLeod, a former political editor and close friend of the couple.

That determination led to his candid interview in The Guardian in 2008. Again, Mr Darling didn't intend to rock the boat. His intention was to tell people who he was. His "worst for 60 years" remark was, he says, about the global economy. Again, the timing was awful: it overshadowed an autumn fightback by Mr Brown, who was at a low ebb. The interview included a revealing aside: "There's lots of people who'd like to do my job and, no doubt, actively trying to do it." That was seen as a sideswipe at the Schools Secretary Ed Balls, Mr Brown's closest political ally.

Last spring there was persistent media speculation that Mr Balls would succeed Mr Darling, who was again infuriated by what he saw as an attack from colleagues. But James Purnell quit the Cabinet, leaving Mr Brown too weak to risk another resignation. Mr Darling was offered the Foreign Office, the Home Office and Leader of the Commons but didn't blink, saying it was the Treasury or nothing. Mr Brown backed down. Mr Darling, knowing he was unsackable, grew in confidence.

There was more tension over last year's pre-Budget report. Mr Darling formed an axis with the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson to persuade Mr Brown to acknowledge the need for spending cuts. The Prime Minister agreed the public deficit should be halved in four years but he and Mr Balls emphasised the decision to protect frontline services. Mr Darling and Lord Mandelson used the brief turmoil caused by last month's failed coup against Mr Brown to persuade him to be more upfront about cuts. But a similar battle now looms ahead of next month's Budget.

This week's unintended explosion will reinforce the view among some Brownites that it would have been better to install Mr Balls at the Treasury in 2007. They regard him as a more political animal, more willing to challenge Treasury orthodoxy and thus a better pre-election Chancellor. But the now not-so-grey Mr Darling has shown he will fight to preserve his own reputation and do what is right for the economy, even if that means upsetting the First Lord of the Treasury.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee