Move over Darling?

His words can make stock markets quake. They pushed house prices down further when he failed to quash rumours of a cut in stamp duty. Yet here is that flinty character Alistair Darling confessing all to one of the most winsome women in the interviewing business, Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian.

Confesses the Chancellor: “We knew the economy was going to slow down.” But he hadn’t the faintest inkling of the financial crisis about to unfold before him? “No, no one did. No one had any idea.”

“The economic times we are facing “are arguably the worst they’ve been in 60 years,” he says bluntly. “And I think it’s going to be more profound and long-lasting than people thought.””

“In the space of 10 months we’ve gone from a position where people generally felt we were doing OK to where we’re certainly not doing OK. We’ve got to rediscover that zeal which won three elections, and that is a huge problem for us at the moment. People are pissed off with us.”

“Can Brown communicate it? “Yes, I do think he can. I do think he will.” Then why hasn’t he? “Er, well,” Darling falters. “Well, it’s always difficult, you know. You can always say, what could you have done better, and all the rest of it. But Gordon, in September, up to party conference, has got the opportunity to do that. And he will do that. It’s absolutely imperative.”

What made him tell all? Was he ambushed or did he fall? It’s a tale of two women…
Decca Aitkenhead profiler and interviewer.Catherine Macleod, press adviser (and old friend ) to the Chancellor. brought in as crisis PR when the Chancellor’s stock was already sinking, post Northern Rock.. The interviewer was a shrewd choice – no case hardened, horny-handed political hack here, ( one was left to write up the news story), but someone fresh, interesting to talk to ,someone to lower his guard perhaps, the very personable Decca who specialises in drawing people out.

Did he really mean to blurt it all out? A clue here is that the interview took place on his croft on the Isle of Lewis where he might have become all too relaxed, far away from the pressures of Westminster. Two days just to get a few quotes? Profiling journalists don’t work that way. They spend time, nose around, chatting, observing. That could be another clue. Might he have thought that much of it was off- the record, getting- to- know- you stuff? The Treasury is standing by every word, no charge of breaking faith. What else can they do? Relaxed he certainly was, as Decca rushes to tell us.

“Wendy Alexander, the former Scottish Labour leader, is “not likable at all”( Ouch! Her brother is Darling’s cabinet colleague Douglas) ; Cherie Blair’s memoirs were “awful”, and as for the Dome – “well, thank God I didn’t have to go there on millennium night.”

A different clue lies in the identity of “Catherine” quoted by Decca as instructing Darling: “Now Alistair,” Catherine tells him firmly when eventually we sit down for the interview, “tell her everything. Make sure you tell her everything.”

A telling sentence that. I’ve known Catherine for years. We shared a corridor at Westminster where she was political editor of the Herald in Glasgow, before she turned gamekeeper and joined Darling as his media adviser last year. Steady and strong she is, very experienced, long friendly with Darling, knows the press- politician relationship like the back of her hand. The ideal crisis PR, I would have said. Was this a strategy of appalling frankness, a warning to Gordon Brown not to play down the extent of the financial crisis?

Then again “when we eventually sit down for the interview” could be a giveaway. Despite Catherine’s professionalism the interview conditions may somehow not have been clear. A final clue comes in Decca’s own assessment of the Chancellor: “at times he seems almost too straightforward, even high-minded, for the low cunning of political warfare”.

Gordon Brown is notorious for refusing ever to admit to a mistake, for sticking to a narrative of success come what may. As he supervises the final details of his recovery package, his old friend Alistair has certainly shown him another way.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • niall

    Hmm, a very peculiar turn of phrase but the poor old Darling is but a footnote anyhow. Laboured into an economic millstone.

    To be relevant to Northern Ireland …….. negative equity, inability to sell and more importantly people IT IS NOT GOING TO GET BETTER FOR A COULE OF YEARS!!

    Let’s stop confusing house speculation with the economy and crack on……….. and if you own a but to let or other economic millstone then tough shit and welcome to the real world. I hope all our mla’s have a second home losing £ by the bucketload.

  • Dave

    Nial, speculating on house price inflation is like an inverse game of musical chairs: it’s only the saps left sitting (on huge mortgages) that lose. A smart investor will never lose money on property.

    And Fick, tad harsh there. Brian is a great read (puts in a good word). It’s refreshing to hear a politician admit that he doesn’t have an f-ing clue what is doing on. It’s just a shame that the public insist on electing people who, for the most part, are not capable of running a corner shop, never mind an entity as complex as an economy. Folks made a fatal error by allowing politics to become a career for hacks who know nothing but are convinced by megalomania that they everything and be in positions wherein they can inflict their ‘wisdom’ on the rest of us.

  • cynic

    The only rational explanations for this are that:-

    1 he knows he’s getting the boot in a reshuffle and decided to get the knife in first and put the blame for the mess where it belongs ie with Brown and Balls or

    2 he aims to destabilize Brown as part of the move to oust him and install someone with a chance at the next election (while at the same time damaging Balls’s chances)

    3 he has decided to defect to the Conservatives or SNP

    4 it was just too good a lunch beforehand

  • I think that we need a sinn fein chancellor of the exchequer in westminister asap as they are the only political party that seem to know anything about financial rectitude as witnessed by the fact that they are the only political party in the british and irish isles that has its spending in order.If only the present chancellor would not be too proud to request assistance.

  • THe Raven

    Actually, blinding, if anything, this whole charade shows that the very last people who have any control over an economy, are the people we vote in…

  • Of course, there were some who saw this coming, and were mocked for it — Marxist analysis was sooo passé!

    Equally, those who blithely assume that, a couple of years down the line, all will be chipper again (with the enstoolment of Dave and the Diddy Men) are likely to be severely disappointed.

    There was a guy who predicted all this in the 1920s: Nikolai Kondratieff. Old Nick had been an economics minister (for Kerensky) at the age of 25, then an advocate of Lenin’s NEP: so what did he know? Nada. Nada.

    Well Kondratieff detected a “long cycle” in capitalist economics. It essentially argues that the start of a cycle is marked by technological innovation (steam power, steel, oil-based energy, IT). Each moment of innovation provokes a surge of investment and growth, this concludes with outbreak of war and a crisis of capitalism. Feels familiar?

    If the K-wave theory works, we are heading into the “winter” of the cycle, growing social crises, and general economic mayhem. There will be a three-year collapse, followed by a period of retrenchment, deflation and renewal, which should last some 15 years. Oh, and another consequence is that national economies go into protectionist mode.

    In retrospect, one might question whether an economic boom based on selling consumers more and better kitchens, televisions that changed technology every few months, billions of iPods, gas-guzzling SUVs, and all on credit, was a great idea.

    Or, whether having the US economy in the hands of dunderheads, sabre-rattlers and neanderthalers these last seven years has contributed, well … you might say that, but I could hardly comment.

    Suffice it to say, Iraq was predicted to cost the US $100-200 billion. The economics-adviser, Lawrence Lindsay’s estimate was such an outrageous and unwelcome exaggeration, the White House sacked him in 2002: this is generally called “shooting the messenger”. Current estimates are $1.6 trillion, and possibly going up to $3 trillion.

  • IJP

    Sometimes you despair at the quality of our Executive Ministers.

    And then you listen to Alisdair Darling…

    Talk about an ivory tower!

  • Eddie

    Brian’s admiration for “Catherine” is misplaced. As a press adviser she is obviously not up to it. She allows her charge to reveal that he has no clothes.

    An incompetent politician whose remarks will damage the economy further; an adviser who doesn’t see the pitfalls with a journalist; and we saps who will pay for it all in the coming economic storm while Darling and Catherine luxuriate in cushy berths and look forward to inflation-proofed pensions, come what may.

  • Oh, lawd … an intelligent man, which Darling undoubtedly is, uses a degree of irony; and nobody gets it. However, compare Aitkenhead’s short piece with the extended drool that is Dylan Jones’s “love that splurges its name” in Cameron on Cameron, and you might spot something about a decent, if not-quite-there effort versus utter dross. On second thoughts, I’m not sure whether that last sentence comments on the subject or the content.

    As for the “more profound and long-lasting than people thought”, that’s waking up to reality (see my other passing notions on K-waves, above).

    A more significant, and far, far better-written piece is Alastair Campbell’s, in the Times magazine, on Jacques Brel. That, at least, has a proper sense of perspective. And deals with something important.

    Or for a tear-jerker, try Gary Younge witnessing Obama’s coronation, but not in Denver — by tele-link in the Regal Cinema, South Chicago. That’s also in the Guardian, and puts in the shade two parallel impressive efforts, by Jonathan Freedman and Simon Schama.

    Today, there’s a lot of well-written and worthwhile stuff in tomorrow’s chippie wrapper: it’s just not written by Decca Aitkenhead.

  • Rory


    A theatre director friend of mine has been pestering me for some time to do a one-man piece on Jacques Brel. Although I am flattered I simply cannot see in me what he thinks he might see and thus I find the prospect intimidating – the more so now when I contemplate the possibility of being subject to Alistair Campbell’s critique. Besides which, although I could happily cope with the caporals, the moules et frites might prove to be beyond my reach.

    God bless cowardice, I say – a much undervalued virtue.