The MT Interview: Alistair Darling
As he prepares to leave frontbench politics after 22 years, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose forthright view of the state of the economy once so infuriated Gordon Brown, delivers his verdict on the fledgling Coalition, the financial crisis and a certain recently published memoir.
It was Enoch Powell who said: 'All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.'
I cannot help thinking on this as I greet Alistair Darling, who was until a few months ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer. His new office is at the top of Portcullis House, the building MPs use across the road from the House of Commons.
The room is completely empty, apart from a desk in the corner with a few papers on it, a computer, a bare meeting table and a few chairs. On the bookshelves there are just a handful of volumes. Among them is Tony Blair's memoir, A Journey, which stands out because it's got yellow Post-It labels - presumably the sections relating to Darling - sticking out of the side. An assistant sits in a small ante-room, listening in.
It's not clear whether they've put the phones on silent or nobody is calling - whichever it is, the absence of their ringing adds to the sense of loss. Only a few months ago, Darling had a suite of rooms at the Treasury that were full of vital documents and files, and an army of staff constantly coming and going, handing him messages, seeking his thoughts, chasing his signature. And, of course, the home in Downing Street.
He stood for election as an MP again because he wanted to carry on being chancellor, as well as serving his constituents. 'I'd like to have finished the job,' he says. 'I'd like to have seen us into recovery and well into the future. But we lost the election and we lost pretty convincingly. The other lot didn't win it, we lost it.'
His frustration is palpable. 'For the three years I was chancellor, there was only about a month when things looked all right. The rest of the time, we were dealing with a hurricane.'
He's annoyed too, with his own party, with the hierarchy and with the election planners - and that must mean with his then leader. During their long years together, Darling and Brown worked harmoniously, despite Brown's increasingly difficult nature. They had much in common as members of Labour's Scottish mafia, yet they are very different personalities.
Towards the end, their relationship soured, when Darling committed the cardinal sin in the eyes of Brown and some of his advisers of speaking his mind on the extent of the recession. In the summer of 2009, Brown wanted to replace him with Ed Balls, but Darling refused to take another post - he'd rather resign from the Cabinet than accept a lesser job Despite all this, the two seem to remain on good terms - or perhaps he is saving the truth for his own memoirs.
Since the election, he says, 'it's only cuts - that's all we hear about.' The new government has 'tried to define itself around cuts'. Yet, during the campaign, they were barely mentioned. 'We're going to have the debate this autumn we never had in the election.'
Surely, Labour was just as culpable in that regard? 'Absolutely. By not saying more about what we would do we've now left the ground that has been taken by others. The result is they can do it on their terms.'
Governments, he says, need 'a mandate as to where they can and can't go'. But this government has a 'mandate of silence. This was the first election campaign where we didn't have a day devoted to health, education, the economy ... Instead we had the TV debates that took up half of the campaign. The debate we're having now, about cuts, is the debate we should have had during the campaign. It's true, the fault lies with all of us.' And that includes his former boss.
Now, after Labour's election failure, he is preparing to leave frontbench politics. …