The Sketch: The dull, fine print of a Chancellor-in-waiting

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The Independent Online

What's it called, the long, monotonous thing that makes a Scottish windbag drone? Alistair Darling. Full marks. Arf arf.

The minister is famously and deliberately dull, it's his policy. His objective is to close down public interest in the departments he runs in order to conceal their unavoidable inadequacies. He performed miracles in Social Security, Pensions, and most recently, Transport.

He is said to be the next chancellor; we should try to pay him more attention before we lose interest in the entire British economy.

Cynics and satirists are too impatient to savour the full effect of Mr Darling, and I, like you, suffer from a Falling Sickness in his presence. But yesterday I made a special effort (I'm bleeding from the ears as a result) and have retrieved something to report for you.

He was asked by Chris Grayling (new spokesman) why Labour's 10-year plan for transport had abandoned so many of its targets. Mr Darling said the key question was how were the Tories going to come up with the money to pay for anything. Disgraceful! Mr Grayling then asked why, in view of Labour's commitment to more freight on the railways, had freight subsidies been cut by 30 per cent? Mr Darling demanded to know what the Tory transport policy was. Stinker!

A Tory from Basingstoke asked him about overcrowding on trains (she was standing up for people to sit down). Mr Darling gave her a little fact-like thing to consider. He claimed that a first class ticket to Leeds cost £125 but the same company was offering a day-before ticket for £9.50.

If this is an audition piece for the chancellorship it will do very nicely. His feel for misleading statistics is deep, intuitive and rapine. A first class return Leeds-London for £9.50? You try and get one. They'll be there in the fine print somewhere. Alistair Darling is all fine print. He has learnt his most important lessons from the worst sort of salesman.

When he becomes the next Caledonian chancellor he'll be twisting, turning and wringing statistics from his filthy machine; we won't be able to bear the torsion. He'll take us through a recession because we'll be too depressed to listen to him. There is a peculiar genius in that.

He told the House one interesting thing: "At election time, the test for both political parties is how much more to spend." That's true and useful, treacherous as it is to his tribal origins. It is a succinct expression of Tony Blair's triumph. The Prime Minister has moved political discourse quite as far as Margaret Thatcher did.

None of these dour, dull, impenetrable Scots could have sold that massive increase in public spending to the British public. None of them could have won an election on the promise of higher taxes. What flatfoots they are compared with our nimble, limber English Prime Minister.