Alistair Darling talks to Fraser Nelson about the importance of telling the truth, why Labour’s cuts are ‘kinder’, and the disheartening trudge between Number 11 and the Commons
Is Scottish black pudding made from the blood of pig or sheep? Alistair Darling insists it’s sheep. ‘I don’t have any in at the moment, I’m afraid,’ he says, almost apologetically. But he gives me the name of the butcher in his beloved Isle of Lewis — Charley Barley — from whom he orders his supplies.
It’s 50 minutes into our interview and a Treasury aide, who had hoped to keep the interview to 35 minutes, throws down his pen, declaring that he is ‘struggling to tune into this conversation’. But the Chancellor is in a talkative mood.
He spent two weeks in Stornoway last month and is full of the joys of Scotland: ‘There was one day when the phone didn’t go for at least five hours!’ he says. This is clearly the longest period without interruption he can remember. ‘I thought maybe we’d been disconnected, or that a sheep had eaten through the cable or whatever. But no — it was just quiet.’ So, I suggest, perhaps this means the world isn’t collapsing in the way it was last summer? Perhaps the worst of the recession may just be over?
Darling’s face darkens. ‘Most people don’t say that if the economy starts to grow at zero-point-something then things are better. They judge it by what happens when they go out of the front door.’ Given his prediction that unemployment ‘will continue to rise into next year’, he suspects most people may not like what they see.
Pessimism has become Darling’s trademark — and with reason. When he was made Chancellor just over two years ago, Britain looked a very different place. ‘The sea was flat calm, the sky was blue,’ he says, a little mournfully. ‘When I sat down and started looking at things, a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand began to appear. The cloud is now’ — he pauses — ‘bigger than a man’s hand.’ That’s one way of putting it. Another is to say that Britain has the worst deficit crisis of any developed economy, with national debt doubling to at least 80 per cent of national income.
‘I have no dispute whatsoever with the proposition that debt at this level is much higher than we want. We need to get it down, because the more you consume on servicing your debt the less money there is to be doing other things.’ But he has no published plans to reduce debt. And was Lord Mandelson correct to say there wouldn’t be a Spending Review? ‘We haven’t decided,’ he says, and reveals that he is conducting an informal review anyway. ‘Over the summer we have been going into departments and asking: “what are you spending your money on?”, “Do you need to do that?”, “Could you do it better?’’’
When this informal spending review is over, he says, it will amount to something they can take to voters. ‘As we come to the election, the public are not going to ask if we’re in favour of cuts in general. They will ask: “If you must reduce the deficit, what does it mean? Am I still going to wait two weeks to get a hospital referral if I’ve got cancer?”’ And this, he says, will be the dividing line between the Tories and Labour. Not the issue of cuts (both parties will cut) but where the axe will fall. He believes that Tory cuts would be indiscriminate, whereas Labour would be kinder.
But there is one aspect to the election, I suggest, from which one cannot escape: the question of who should be Prime Minister. It is an open secret that Mr Darling came within an ace of being moved by Gordon Brown and replaced by the PM’s protégé Ed Balls. This was aborted the night before the reshuffle, when it became clear that Cabinet members would have resigned in protest at such a consolidation of the Prime Minister’s personal grip on government. When Mr Darling survived, he became seen as unsackable. So does he think that Labour would be better off with someone else at the helm?
Darling does a good impression of being furious at the very suggestion. ‘I’ve really got no time for people who say if only there was someone else, it’d be all right. That’s bollocks, you know.’ (The word sounds odd coming from him.) ‘The real fight we’ve got is collectively. There is no point in thinking the day afterwards, if only we’d said this, if only we’d done that. We need to come out fighting — and that burden rests on each and every one of us.’ In here is a genuine message aimed at the Labour party: stop complaining and start campaigning.
Or, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the leader you have — not the leader you wish you had. There have been plenty of times when Mr Darling might have wished he had someone else. Last summer, when he said the recession was the worst for 60 years, he faced fury from 10 Downing Street and even calls for him to resign. Mr Darling was not thinking politically — but this, to his allies, is his virtue. He is, they say, refreshingly bad at spin.
Darling puts it a different way. ‘The test I apply to myself is not how I could get on with John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman, but whether I win an argument with the next-door neighbour, or a constituent. Last summer I thought I was doing no more than stating the obvious in saying we were heading for a very profound downturn.’
Another part of stating the obvious is saying, explicitly, that Labour will make ‘cuts’. For months a war was waged in Downing Street, with most on Mr Darling’s side, while Mr Brown wanted to keep a dividing line of ‘Labour investment versus Tory cuts’. This was abandoned when the Prime Minister promised cuts last week. Does Darling feel vindicated? ‘I don’t have any problem with using the word “cuts”. Whether it’s cutting waste, cutting expenditure, cutting things actually I’m afraid may have to wait until next year or whatever.’ The c-word game, he says, is ‘pathetic’. And then, intriguingly, he explains why.
‘Look, the public are not daft. Any politician who thinks they can get by saying things where someone listening at home is just shaking their head — they’re fooling themselves.’ Really? Who can he mean? Which politician has been making unbelievable statements about cuts? Anyone Scottish? I ask him who he has in mind and he smiles. ‘All of us,’ he says, ‘from time to time can forget that what matters is not the man or woman interviewing you but the person standing at home, doing the dishes, listening to what you’re saying.’ He says no more.
At that point his wife, Maggie, pops her head in the door. She sees us, and pops out again. Living with her is something of a novelty for Darling. When they married in 1986, she was working night shifts at a Glasgow newspaper, while he was shuttling between Westminster and his Edinburgh constituency. Only since he became Chancellor have they lived under the same roof, seven days a week, with Sybil, their cat (the Chancellor is a Fawlty Towers fan). ‘I recommend it to any couple,’ he said. ‘Spend the first 21 years apart.’
But he has little love for his Downing Street flat. ‘It is classic 1930s, when times were hard and materials were cheap,’ he says. ‘I never really envisaged living in London for so long — and that weeks would elapse when I didn’t get out of this ring between here and the Treasury and the House of Commons. Well, it is necessary. But it’s not good for the soul.’
And what will he have achieved? What would he like to be remembered for? He says he is ‘n ot in memoir-writing mode’ but is already thinking of the highlight. A time so traumatic that (as he puts it) his eyebrows almost turned as grey as his hair. ‘It is hard at times to believe that 12 months ago we were looking into an abyss where the entire system might have collapsed. We were hours away from that happening.’ And this, I suspect, is what Mr Darling would like to be his recorded contribution to history: averting that disaster. But would he repeat a claim — made by a man we won’t name — that he saved the world? ‘Oh,’ he smiles, again. ‘I only make modest claims on my part.’