We think that we know what Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, thought he was saying. The way that he said it, however, has undermined economic confidence and further weakened the Prime Minister. In his newspaper interview yesterday, and even in his attempt to clarify it on television later, Mr Darling sounded more apocalyptic than he intended.
He told The Guardian that we are facing economic times that "are arguably the worst they've been in 60 years". This was a remarkable assessment, not least because, on the face of it, it was untrue. Was he saying that current forecasts are for conditions worse than the three-day week in 1974, the high inflation of 1974-80, or the mass unemployment of the early 1980s? Even the most pessimistic member of the Bank of England's committee, David Blanchflower, who last week predicted 330,000 job losses by Christmas, does not seem to be suggesting anything of that order.
As Sean O'Grady, economics editor of The Independent, explains on page 6, the Chancellor may have had a specific aspect of the economic situation in mind. The drying-up of credit in the global banking system is something that has not happened on such a scale since it became possible, after the Second World War, to speak of an international capital market. It is much bigger than the secondary banking crisis that hit the City of London in 1973-4 and, although its effects on the "real" economy have so far been limited, it does have the potential to cause a global slump that really would be serious.
So far, however, even Professor Blanchflower is predicting "only" a recession. That may mean hardship for many, but it was hubris for this Government to have proclaimed the end to boom and bust. There will always be economic cycles, and in many ways it is healthy for the over-borrowing of the past decade to unwind a little.
Even in his clarification, Mr Darling failed to make the distinction clear between a "profound downturn" and a "credit crunch the like of which we haven't seen for generations". The trouble is that, as he should know, "credit crunch" has become lazy shorthand for "a period of economic stringency". In fact, it means that banks find it difficult to borrow from each other. It may contribute to recession, but the extent to which it does depends crucially on confidence. Which is why his words were so damaging.
Unless he makes clear that his "worst in 60 years" comment applied to the state of the banking system, rather than directly to living standards, people will wonder if he knows something that they do not. Most people are realistic enough to accept that a period of slow or negative growth may be a price to be paid for the good years of 1993-2007. But they are not expecting a return to the three-day week.
In many respects, as Mr Darling tried to "clarify", the fundamentals of the British and world economy are sound. US growth has bounced back; China and India continue to lift the rest of the world; the oil price has subsided. Mr Darling may have thought that he was engaged in expectations management. And it is true that Gordon Brown's upbeat assessments of Britain's economic prospect had started to ring false. But there is a happy medium between optimistic bluster and proclaiming, like Private Fraser, that "we're all doomed".
A Chancellor of the Exchequer needs to be sensitive to the effects of his or her every word on economic confidence. It is surprising that Mr Darling should have resorted to playing political games with such important matters. As we report today, it appears that he had not told Mr Brown about the interview. It looks like an attempt to prepare the public for bad economic news, to secure his own position and to distance himself from the Prime Minister. Probably unintentionally, he allowed some of his frustration to show at having to take the sharp end of Mr Brown's mistakes, from the 10p tax fiasco to the summer briefing about a stamp duty holiday.
In that respect, the interview was a significant manifestation of a Government core close to meltdown. The relationship between Nos 10 and 11 is plainly dysfunctional already. It took years for that to happen in the case of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson, and even Tony Blair and Mr Brown managed to keep it together, just about, until the final two years. Another sign of turmoil at the heart of Government, as we also report, is the imminent departure of Stephen Carter, who has luxuriated in the grand title of Chief of Strategy and Principal Adviser to the Prime Minister for less than a year. The auguries for the efficient despatch of the nation's business are not good.Reuse content