Bruce Anderson: Why Darling is Brown's nemesis

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Fifteen months ago, there were many conflicting predictions about the Brown premiership. But there did appear to be one absolute certainty. Everyone agreed that the new Prime Minister would run the tautest of tight ships. He was notorious for bearing grudges. There was no precedent for a cabinet minister – however senior – bullying his colleagues in the way that Mr Brown had; he had regularly treated his prime minister will contemptuous insolence. So this was a man who would rule by fear.

We were all wrong. It now seems that hardly a week goes by without some junior minister cheeking the PM and going unpunished. Maintaining authority is always a problem for prime ministers who are expected to lose the next election and, with it, their power of patronage. But any of Mr Brown's predecessors would have at least enjoyed the satisfaction of condemning the upstarts to a few months on the back benches. It now appears as if twisting Mr Brown's tail is a cost-free amusement.

Then there are the senior ministers. Whoever thought that Alistair Darling would stand up to Gordon Brown? Mr Darling seemed designed for the role of Gordon's Greyfriars Bobby, the little dog which was so faithful to its master that it stood guard at his grave. But Mr Darling suddenly learned how to bite. Fed up with taking the blame for decisions which were forced upon him, he is determined to rescue some of his reputation from the wreckage. We now know that Alistair Darling believed all along that abolishing the 10p tax rate would be a disaster. He warned the PM; he was overridden. He now wants to set the record straight.

He is also determined to distance himself from the great mortgage wheeze which Mr Brown seems to have devised during his holidays. If the leaks by those opposed to the Brown plan are accurate, it would make Northern Rock seem like an austere Scottish bank manager from the days of the PM's youth. Mr Darling, himself a cautious, prudent man not without a tincture of austerity, wants no part of it.

In one respect, however, Mr Darling was wrong. It is not true that Britain faces the worst economic outcome for 60 years. Between 1974 and 1977, everything was much worse. But in that era, Messrs Brown and Darling were socialists. They may remember those dire years when the British economy was as near to collapse as the gateway to a new Jerusalem. Others have different recollections.

Economists could argue for hours as to how it compares with the early Nineties. But there is a more immediate political consideration. "Boom and bust" is Gordon Brown's favourite phrase. As he plans the next election, he is still hoping to extract some mileage out of the 1990s recession. Now, his chancellor has cut the slogan from under his feet. Worst conditions for 60 years: it may not be true, but that will not inhibit the Tories from quoting Mr Darling over and over again. If he is reshuffled, they will quote him as the man who was punished for telling the truth.

There is a comparison with Geoffrey Howe. For years, Mrs Thatcher treated him abominably. In response, he would just blink owlishly and persevere with great matters of state. He did have 11 and a half years at the forefront. Finally, he could stand it no longer, though the breaking-point came over Europe, not rudeness. Geoffrey reached for the dagger and made one of the two or three most important Commons speeches of the 20th century. As Confucius ought to have written: "Never turn your back on a turning worm."

It is unlikely that Alistair Darling will emulate Geoffrey Howe either in longevity or rhetoric. But he can now enjoy the satisfaction of being his own man. Admittedly from a low base, Darling shares have risen sharply in recent days, which is more than any of his colleagues can claim. But his recovery has given more pleasure to the Tories than to the Labour Party. He has provided the Tories with a quote. His disputes with Mr Brown are more evidence of dissension and paralysis at the heart of Government – and he has brought Balls into play. A number of MPs would like Ed Balls to replace Mr Darling at the Treasury.

Mr Balls, a man who usually talks up to his name, could also rely on support from less welcome quarters: the Parliamentary Conservative Party, every Tory candidate in a marginal seat and every Tory candidate for a Labour seat hitherto regarded as safe but which Mr Balls could easily turn into a marginal. The Tories cannot wait for Ed Balls to be better known, preferably in consort with his wife, Yvette Cooper, the girl who puts the "nanny" into nanny state. Could Gordon Brown commit the ultimate folly of a Balls chancellorship? Nothing is beyond our Prime Minister.

Except running a sensible foreign policy. When the Georgia crisis broke, Gordon Brown did not seem to care. David Cameron was able to make the running. For a few days, it was as if he had become prime minister with David Miliband as Foreign Secretary. Gordon Brown has now decided to intervene. This is nothing to do with Georgia. He was merely worried that Messrs Cameron and Miliband were getting too much credit, especially Master Miliband, his leadership rival.

On Sunday, a denunciatory article appeared under the PM's name. There was nothing constructive. It merely added to the wild and whirling words which Western politicians have expended on Georgia. The likelihood of this having any effect in Moscow is even smaller than the likelihood of Ed Balls being an effective chancellor. There are already rumours that some of the big Russian energy firms may be about to repudiate their contracts with Europe. If so, look out for further economic storms. The first priority now ought to be calm, strategic planning.

For that to happen, we would need a prime minister who was capable of running a government. That is no longer the case. There is a power vacuum in 10 Downing Street, and the resulting embarrassments multiply on an almost daily basis.

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