Alex Massie

The Darling Option

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Last October I suggested that if Labour wanted to find a caretaker leader they could do much worse than appoint Alistair Darling to the job. Granted, there were a couple of difficulties with this notion: Darling is Scottish and there is no party of Darling or interest that will swing behind him. Well he can't do much about the former, but the latter can be turned to his advantage (if he decides he wants the job) since, evidently, his elevation doesn't dash anyone else's hopes or interest. As I put it in October:

Now, sure, Darling isn't a perfect candidate. But if such existed we wouldn't be having this discussion. But he has a certain calmness about him that might, just might, be what Labour need. Because, assuming Cameron becomes Prime Minister, the public will not, I think, be interested in hearing very much from Labour for quite some time. It will not be a moment for the new Labour leader to make a name for himself. Rather, it will be a time for the party to offer constructive criticism  - particularly on tax and spending and fiscal policy - while it concurrently has its internal debate.

Darling might be able to do that. More than any other member of the cabinet he must appreciate the gravity of the financial dilemmas that will afflict the next Prime Minister. More than any other would-be Labour leader he'd be able to offer a degree of steadyness. Knee-jerk oppositionalism will be neither popular nor welcome. Darling's calmness - hitherto condiered dullness - might just be what the party needs.

Not for the long-term, of course, but perhaps for a couple of years. Darling, then, might be the caretaker Labour needs while they consider their next move and the kind of party they want to be. Not exciting, by any means, but steady, restrained competence might be what Labour need more than anything else.

So it's interesting to read Iain Martin reporting that he's hearing something like this:

The Labour family is starting to realise that if it is out of power it would need a caretaker leader in place quickly so that it can regroup, rethink and then work out which of the competing contenders has the best chance of beginning the work of reconstruction.

In this context, I hear the name of Alistair Darling being mentioned increasingly as the interim option. It makes a lot of sense. The Chancellor has had a good crisis and he could steady the ship. He also has a great sense of humour - which will be crucial in the circumstances.

Johnson is said not to really want it and Jack Straw is done for. Harriet Harman? She will say as deputy leader - that it is her constitional right. But it is extremely hard to see her colleagues rallying around her, and she has a vested interest in that she would be a contender in any forthcoming leadership race. The Dark Lord (Mandelson) would stop at nothing to halt her progress. He is also very close to the Chancellor.

Darling would also be confident in the Commons and well-placed to benefit if a new government got rapidly into serious economic difficulties. Who knows, if there were a second election this autumn it is not inconceivable that he might perform rather well in it.

Putting Darling in place even if only for a few months is certainly a smarter idea than a chaotic instant leadership election starting right away. Instead, the party could take its time over the summer, have a debate that it hasn’t had since 1994 and perhaps start the autumn with a new leaders. (Who that might possibly be is the subject for many more future posts.)

Interesting! But just remember where you read it first...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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