"We Need to Have the Mentality of an Opposition": Alistair Darling Was Once the Safest Pair of Hands in the Government. A Year after Becoming Chancellor, Our Political Editor, Martin Bright, Asks Him Where It All Went Wrong
Who'd be Alistair Darling? Once viewed as the safest pair of hands in the government, he has presided over a period of crisis in the Treasury not witnessed since the time of Norman Lamont (and a young adviser called David Cameron) more than a decade and a half ago. Most cabinet ministers consider themselves unfortunate in having to deal with a single serious crisis in their time, two at the most. Darling has faced an avalanche: Northern Rock, the loss of computer discs containing details of 25 million people, criticism of his handling of a new tax on "non-doms", and changes to capital gains tax and corporation tax. He has had to weather the storm over the decision to abolish the top rate of income tax inherited from his predecessor, deal with a potentially disastrous downturn in the housing market and the effects of continued hikes in the price of oil.
When we meet on a glorious June day at the Treasury, the Chancellor is in a remarkably sunny frame of mind, all things considered. I wonder if, just sometimes he felt he was the most unlucky politician alive. "If you're ever tempted to feel sorry for yourself, then that's the day you go away," he replies. "You just have to deal with events." He raises the example of the child benefit discs, lost in November 2007. "When I was phoned up on a Saturday morning and told by the head of Revenue & Customs that they'd lost these tax discs...it was obvious to me within 30 seconds that this was a massive political problem and you just have to deal with it. No one would want to go to the House of Commons and explain it the way I had to, but there's no way to get away from it."
Darling is keen to note that he had also foreseen the potential political consequences of the abolition of the 1op tax rate shortly after he took up the Treasury job a year ago. "As you would expect when I became Chancellor, I looked right across the piste to see where we were on a whole lot of things." He interrupts and even completes my question when I begin to ask whether action should have been taken earlier: "Of course," he says. But the key question is whether, when he looked at the 2007 Budget, which contained the lop proposals, he thought it would prove to be a political problem or something that could be dealt with as a piece of financial tinkering? "Well," he says,"what I noticed was that a lot of people would be paying more tax."
At no point does Darling show the least sign of disloyalty to Gordon Brown, but he is keen to emphasise that he was well aware of the potentially toxic nature of the 1op tax rate abolition as soon as he took over from his old friend at the Treasury. He made a similar claim to the Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley during an interview for his recent Channel 4 documentary on Brown; so it would appear that Darling is not prepared to act as the fall guy for the government's woes over the top tax-band fiasco.
It's the economy, stupid
In the spirit of fair play I ask him to take me through the past year and give me his perspective on the predicament in which the government presently finds itself. "If you ask fundamentally what's changed... self-evidently it's the credit crunch... The IMF has said that it is the biggest shock to the world's economic systems since the 1930s... If you look at the overarching event of the past 12 months, it is a slowdown in the economy, and everything that comes with it, and that hasn't just affected the economic matters--it's had a huge bearing on politics, too. …