Matthew Norman: So where is our Chancellor hiding?

He seems to be intent on going down as the biggest pussy ever to hold an office of state
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The Independent Online

This is a Missing Persons Alert. Caucasian, mid-late 50s, slender build, snowy white receding hair, pitch black eyebrows, faintly bemused expression, not heard from in several weeks, If you should come across this man, who answers to the nickname of "Chancellor", please inform the authorities at once. Do not – repeat NOT – approach him directly. Although not thought to be dangerous, he may become alarmed and make a run for it. Well, it's worth a try, even if it's probably me being sentimental yet again. Much more likely, Alistair Darling is being held in captivity, in a dungeon beneath No 10, being repeatedly given a message which might, with a certain licence, be boiled down to "Shut it, you slaaag" by a combination of his colleagues.

There is a doppelganger – more than likely a form of android – that pitches up on the government front bench now and then. It's an uncanny likeness, and Mrs Maggie Darling herself would struggle to tell them apart, but there is a giveaway. Although it can nod its head approvingly at whatever gibberish a colleague is intoning, and even give the defiant boxer's false smile that belies the pain of suffering a direct hit from David Cameron, it cannot speak.

The disappearance of the real Alistair Darling is the most mysterious vanishing act since Agatha Christie. At a time of intense economic crisis, with apocalyptic OECD projections underscoring abysmal new figures about the economy's contraction, the man nominally in charge of economic policy is deafeningly silent.

The Bank of England Governor ridicules his promise to halve the national debt in half five years, and not a whisper in publlc. The noble Lord Mandelson usurps him sensationally on the radio, ruling out a Comprehensive Spending Review before the election, and the Chancellor remains schtum. The genteel Ed Balls shares his and Gordon's utopian future, in which growth in GDP and increase in public spending fight to outdo one another, and from Mr Darling not a dickie bird. There are patients in comas, having reacted to anaesthesia given before laryngectomies, who talk more about the economy, and louder, than the man charged with running the economy. Even in the surreal never-neverland of New Labour, this is weird.

Now there are elements who believe that the person seen occasionally on the front bench is the real thing. The influential website Politics Home Index is one, asking "Where Is Alistair Darling?" and canvassing its 100 experts about this bizarre quietude. About half of this panel think this is a deliberate "lie low strategy", while most of the rest suspect he's had a gun put to his head – I paraphrase infinitesimally – by our new ruling triumvarate of (in their correct ranking order) Mandelson, Brown and Balls, and told that if he says a word to cast doubt on their boundless optimism, he will swiftly find himself propping up a motorway flyover on the outskirts of Inverness.

Neither theory makes sense to me. Saying nothing in the midst of a ferocious public spending row with the Tories seems less a "lie low strategy" than a suicide note on behalf of his own reputation. As for the "leant on by those beastly bullies"notion, this bankrupts belief even more, because Mr Darling is in a position of maximum strength.

Having survived the flipping revelations and the rumours that Mr Balls was caught on Treasury Cam pacing out his office with one of Chelsea's leading interior designers, he is as unsackable as any minister in memory. His departure would be fatal to Mr Brown. He must know this. Benny Hawkins, the odd job man at the Crossroads Motel, would know this. There are people currently telling healthcare professionals that they are Cassius Clay, and could someone possibly undo the jacket as there's a big fight with Sonny Liston in Philadelphia on Wednesday week, who couldn't fail to see this.

All Mr Darling needs do to scare the triumvirate into backing off is gently suggest he is losing patience, and may have to consider his position. As the man who has effectively been "Gordon's bitch" these past 20 years, doggedly enduring the rants and dodging the ballistic office equipment, he is already half-way to New Labour's very own Geoffrey Howe.

All it needs to complete the job is a brutally more-in-sorrow-than-anger resignation speech – "Mr Speaker, I can no longer offer even my tacit support and acquiescence to these somewhat, er, hopeful predictions for future growth and increased spending as given by my Right Honourable Friends. My duty, ultimately, is to serve the British people, who deserve the truth, however unpalatable. The time has come perhaps for others to consider loyalties with which I myself..." and the Chancellor would end this putsch against the Treasury. Instead, he seems determined to go down as the biggest pussy ever to hold a great office of state.

Perhaps he's just too good natured and malleable to use nuclear tactics like threatening to walk. What marks him out from his colleagues, after all, is that there doesn't seem to be a nasty bone in his body. Instead he's an endearingly unpompous chap, whose deadpan humour suggests at seeing more to life than telling whoppers in the cause of short term electoral gain.

Not only is he not prepared to lie his head off like Mr Balls, but he has even suffered rare lapses into candour, as almost a year ago when he betrayed tradition by treating the public as grown-ups to warn that the oncoming economing storm would be unprecedented. He was right about that, and collected a reputation for political integrity he is squandering now by absenting himself from the battlefield as the fighting, both internally and with the Tories, reaches its climax.

Being strangely fond of him, I prefer to imagine him befuddled and bemused, as he takes tea in a Harrogate hotel, by a bout of stress-induced amnesia. So if you are reading this, Mr Darling, over the rock cakes and the fancies, you are the Chancellior the Exchequer – no, really, you are – and lots of us would very much like to hear your thoughts about spending cuts, the national and other trifling matters of the kind. It's time to come home.