Leading article: The Chancellor's slings and arrows can wound

Mr Darling's defence is also an attack on leadership at Number 10

Share
Related Topics

Disagreements, even feuds, between prime ministers and their chancellors are nothing new. Nor are elaborately staged shows of unity and solidarity, such as the one we were treated to from the government front bench throughout yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions. Yet Alistair Darling's charge that the "forces of hell were unleashed" after he had warned in August 2008 that economic conditions were "arguably the worst they've been in 60 years" still has the capacity to wound Gordon Brown – even if Mr Darling carefully avoided naming names.

Much of the effect, of course, derives from the timing, with the general election presumed to be less than three months away. Anything that even hints at weakness in Number 10 or discord within the Cabinet is going to be seized on by the Opposition. That is just the cut-and-thrust of election politics.

But the nature of the charge is also different from the allegations about bullying which swirled around at the weekend – and so, quite probably, is the damage. Bullying has become one of those words whose meaning expands with its over-use. The voters by and large understand this, preferring a narrower understanding of the term, before it became mixed up with the modern office environment and compensation claims.

The voters also formed their impression of Gordon Brown a while ago, seeing him as serious, gruff and at times hot-tempered. People mentally substituted "bad temper" for "bullying" and saw the Prime Minister pretty much as they had done before. To be sure, a veritable army of aides rushed to Mr Brown's defence, led by Peter Mandelson, but it was the National Bullying Helpline that rapidly went into meltdown – the line is now suspended – not Number 10.

Whether or not Mr Darling had the epic battle of Gladiator in mind when he alluded to "hell being unleashed" – and it would certainly add a graphic dimension if he had – the phrase is not only memorable in itself but vividly reminds people that Number 10 during Mr Brown's tenure has had a malicious side. This includes the notorious practice of briefing against those who, for whatever reason, fall out of favour.

And Mr Darling fell out of favour in a big way. Having had the nerve to mount a successful rearguard action against moves to replace him, just as the global economic crisis threatened to engulf Britain, he then invited a journalist to visit and vouchsafed to her thoughts about the perils that lay ahead. In so doing, he called into question, even if he did not actually demolish, Mr Brown's legacy at the Treasury. Hell might indeed have had no fury like a former Chancellor scorned.

The insider view is that it was not Mr Brown, but Ed Balls – whose ambitions one day to be Chancellor have never been a secret – who was gunning for Mr Darling. If so, Mr Brown's categorical statement yesterday that he would "never instruct anybody to do anything but support my Chancellor" was entirely truthful. That he saw the need to make such a statement, however, suggests he knew the damage that could be caused by allowing it to stand.

As so often, though, there is a broader truth. Even if Mr Brown did not order negative briefings against his Chancellor, such briefings, and botched Cabinet reshuffles as well, have been a hallmark of Number 10, not just under Mr Brown, but in the dog days of Tony Blair. Voters will forgive outbursts of bad temper; managerial weakness and tolerance of malice are an altogether more serious matter.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'