Saturday, 26 September 2009

Another side to the understated Mr Darling

I interviewed the Chancellor Alistair Darling at the Treasury earlier in the week. The normally reserved Edinburgh Central MP come out passionately in defence of Labour values and was pretty harsh on colleagues who already appear to have given up. He looked healthier and more relaxed than at any time in the last year, and what a year it's been for him.

He slipped up, once, by admitting with typical frankness that Alex Salmond has not faced much opposition in the last two years.
On the tripwires of political journalism that's an implicit criticism of his own former special adviser, Iain Gray. That's politics, that's journalism, but other than that he seemed to be on top of his game and, of course, now unassailable as Chancellor.

From the
Herald 26/09/09

Outside the Treasury someone is clearly taking the mickey. A red Ferrari has been driven up and down Horse Guards Road, which separates the Whitehall building from St James Park, twice in the last five minutes. It could be a City banker sending a metaphorical two-fingered message to the Chancellor that the can’t mess with his bonus.

A year ago, when Alistair Darling looked out from an Atlantic beach and predicted the worst economic storm in 60 years, he was pilloried but proved right in a month. In the roller coaster ride that was the global crash the understated Scotsman saved the banks, slashed VAT, and probably stopped a recession becoming a depression.

Yet little of the credit has come his or the government’s way. He heads from the Pittsburgh G20 to his party conference in Brighton with Labour 14 points behind in the polls.

"Politicians shouldn’t expect gratitude. We’ve got months before the next general election, this is our chance to set out what we stand for, what our values are and to convince the public of it. If we don’t go at this full throttle, we’ll regret it," says Mr Darling, sitting on a sofa that is slightly better upholstered than most of the Treasury’s shabby furnishings. A John Bellany painting on the office wall lends the large room some aesthetic, Scottish dignity.

This is an uncharacteristically passionate Alistair Darling, whose ministerial career has been about turning understatement into an artform - even that 60 year storm warning wasn’t an exaggeration.

But refreshed and inevitably weatherbeaten after his annual Hebridean holiday, he delivers an uncompromising rallying call to parliamentary colleagues who have given up the ghost on the next election.

"I say to them if you curl up in a corner, people will walk on by. I well remember the late 1970s when people got themselves into a mind that it was all terrible and it was all someone else’s fault. Well it isn’t, it’s our responsibility together. I think the Labour party has a good vision of what this country can be - a fair country, where we can look after people, where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential."

He admits that the government has got things wrong but will not accept the narrative behind the flatlining poll ratings is the upopularity of Gordon Brown. "I just don’t have time for people who say ‘if only it was someone else’. I have worked closely with Gordon for a very long time and I believe the only way we can win the next election is if we concentrate on what actually matters, the difference we can make to people’s lives."

The next election will not be, as the media already characterise it, a race to cut public services. It will come down to an ideological differences says the man in charge of the nation’s purse, not just debt management,

"Deficits matter but you have got to deal with it in a sensible way. It doesn’t mean you lurch from well-run public services to some sort of Arctic night where you switch off all the lights and everything goes to hell," says Mr Darling. "Reducing debt drastically will have severe consequences on other things you need to do to keep the country going. I don’t know many sensible commentators who think that a deficit reduction plan of more than half of four years would be sensible thing to do, just as there are only a few people who think that we shouldn’t be supporting the economy just now. The British Tory party are alone in that."

He characterises his Tory shadow, George Osborne, as someone "with a tendency to play at politics rather than address serious economic problems" who will be rumbled by the electorate. "The difference is that I think the government has responsibility to help people and give them the opportunity they need. The Tories want to do less, want the government to retreat and frankly step back from their responsibilities. I think Osborne made the wrong call 12 months ago, he would not have supported the economy and it would have had disastrous consequences."

Turning to other enemies he dismisses the SNP’s complaint that Scotland will face £500M of cuts next year but he slips up in acknowledging that Alex Salmond has been given a free run by Labour at Holyrood.

"The nationalists have had two years where they have not been exposed to particular criticism or questioning in many cases but I think people can see for themselves that its very tempting to blame someone else," says Mr Darling, in an implicit criticism of Labour under Wendy Alexander and his own former special adviser, Iain Gray.

"Okay, people voted by one seat to change the administration two years ago but the idea that a separate Scotland breaking away from its largest neighbour makes any sense in today’s world is just nonsense."

After a a turbulent year he can do little about the red Ferrari outside or criticisms that he has not done enough to rein in the bonus culture outside the banks he controls, but Mr Darling has faith in the electorate being ahead of the political curve. "The public know full well what’s been happening over the last few years and they want to see a choice. I hope we help people get through this and that people will accept, no matter what the difficulties, we took the right course."

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