The NS INTERVIEW: Alistair Darling

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He is a pragmatist and a technocrat, but his doubts about the future should give his boss cause for concern

For Alistair Darling, the timing could have been better. There's the government, preparing to shower cash on Britain's 11 million pensioners - and yet, in his big speech to the party conference, he is not allowed to give the details; they will have to wait for the pre-Budget report. So, having taken the rap for cuts in disability benefit last year, and for the miserly 75p increase in the basic pension this year, Darling is still not allowed to become, quite literally, the Conference Darling. Inside and outside the conference hall in Brighton, there is still fury about the failure to restore the link between pensions and average earnings. He seems resigned to his ritual humiliation: "I'm used to it. You don't come here [meaning the Department of Social Security] if you want to be the most popular member of the Cabinet. A lot of what happens here, by its nature, is never going to be popular."

It used to be said that Defence was the graveyard portfolio for Labour politicians; now the DSS, which everyone else wants to squeeze for savings, has replaced it. Darling is phlegmatic: "The Department of Social Security is an extremely enjoyable ministry. Is this the obvious place to be if I was a career politician? No, it's not. But I'm not a career politician, so I don't worry about it." Not a career politician? This from the man who has been popping up all over the place to defend the government -- on tax, on fuel prices and on the Ecclestone affair -- cool under fire, a very safe pair of hands.

Yet, despite his increasing prominence, Darling has clearly been wondering what it' s all for. His family -- the engaging and doughty former journalist Maggie Vaughan, and their two children -- lives in Edinburgh. Darling returns there at the weekend, but is frantically busy for the rest of the week in London. As a proud father, he is clearly beginning to find the situation intolerable.

New Labour has made much of the work-life balance; how does he work that one out for himself? "It's an increasing problem," he admits. "The only solution is for me to stop doing what I'm doing." "Yes," I prod gently, wondering if a Cabinet minister is about to resign before my very eyes, "so are you thinking of doing that?" His reply is negative, but not the forceful denial I was expecting: "No, I'm not, but my children are nine and 12, and every Monday morning is an increasing wrench." Clearly, as for so many parents, Darling is finding the separation much harder than it used to be when the children were smaller. "I've been an MP for 13 years. It was OK at the start because there were no children...and then, when they're babies, they don't actually notice. But now it is a wrench; there are times when I think that all I've got is access. I don't see them during the week; I'm never there."

It is highly unusual for a top politician to be so honest. Mo Mowlam, just weeks before she announced her departure, publicly insisted that she had no thoughts of going. Had her decision, I wondered, influenced Darling's thinking at all? It had clearly given him something to reflect on. He even sounded a little envious. "Politicians have a limited shelf life, and I suppose one of the nice things for Mo is that she has chosen when to go, like George Robertson [who resigned to become secretary-general of Nato]. I remember George Robertson saying he was one of the few Cabinet ministers to know he was attending his last meeting." For Darling, who turns 47 next month, it' s clearly an attractive way of doing things. Was he thinking of "doing a Mo?", of quitting at 50? Yes, evidently. "I've no plans at the moment," he says. "I' menjoying doing what I'm doing. But politics isn't a career, and I don't see it as a career. I've always thought that I would practise what I've been preaching, and that life begins at 50. There are other things you can go and do. …