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? Its 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 dont 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 Darlings 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. Ive 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 Deccas 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