Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Lunch with Alistair Darling

Just back from an entertaining Press Gallery lunch with Alistair Darling. These are regular grillings for politicians in front of the Westminster journalists and their guests at which MPs are fed (some tasty patridge today) and then expected to sing for dessert.

Despite the gloomy times the chancellor gave a very entertaining speech. At one stage he confessed how deflated he’d been to discover that he was not the only famous politician to hail from the Lewis, the island where he gave his notorious, retrospectivly accurate, 'we’re all doomed' interview to the Guardian last autumn.

Apparently, Barack Obama’s 11th cousin in Canada, one Mary Forsythe, is descended from a family of Murrays and Morrisons who left the blessed island in 1851. As Mr Darling explained, 11th cousin, over 157 years, is really quite a close relation when you come from Lewis.

He was uncharacteristically aggressive too, attacking David Cameron’s speech earlier in the day in which the opposition leader said that the government is putting the British economy and the pound at risk with its £20bn "borrowing binge". Cameron said the country is on the brink of poltiical catastrophe and called for an election so voters could stop a "fundamentally bad decision".

Darling’s response, perhaps sensing that Cameron is moving onto the ground where Labour want’s him to be, was bring it on.

Here’s a flavour of what the normally low-key chancellor said, quite passionately, about the world facing economic meltdown:

"The key question is what should the government do in the face of all this? Right across the world governments and institutions are saying with one voice that we all need to support the economy. I really do think that what David Cameron said today is showing unbelievable complacency"

"I cannot really believe that it is right that we should stand back, as he is implying, and let the recession take its course. You still meet people who were laid off in the 80 and 90s and never went back to work, we cannot allow that to happen again. I believe that the government, and only the government, has a key role to play here. And it isn’t only me saying that, the IMF, the CBI are saying it."
"John Maynard Keynes said it is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong. And I believe that Cameron here is precisely wrong.

"Is he really saying that President Elect Obama is wrong? Obama campaigned on "yes we can", the Tories now appear to be campaign on a slogan of "no we can’t". The choice that faces this country now, and political parties, is a very clear one . You either support the economy now or you run the risk that conditions will be far worse than they could otherwise be, that the cost of failure will have to be met in the future and the cost will be far greater than the cost of taking action now."

"There is pretty clear dividing line, and if it’s a choice between yes can and yes we will, and no we can’t and let recession take its course, that’s choice I’m happy to put before people."

Election battle lines drawn then, but Darling said he and the rest of the cabinet were focused on the economy, not an election campaign but I'm sure he's seen the latest opinion poll in the Times, closing the gap with the Tories on 39% and Labour on 35%.

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