Gordon Brown is still the most likely heir to Tony Blair’s
throne, but the question arises as to whom he would appoint as Chancellor – and
whether that person would actually be allowed to be his own man.
Alistair Darling is widely tipped as Brown’s successor at the Treasury –
whether Brown becomes PM, or even in the improbable case that an ‘anybody but
Gordon’ candidate succeeds. (Ed Balls, Brown’s trusted adviser for many years,
is regarded as the next-but-one Chancellor.)
Regardless of whether Gordon Brown gets the premiership next May – or
whenever Blair departs – the Treasury will need a new head. No victorious
opponent would want a sullen Chancellor plotting his revenge any more than they
would want a reprise of the Gordon-Tony debacle.
This gives us two Darling scenarios: one where he is Chancellor to Brown’s
PM; and one where someone else has the top job. In the latter case, there is
little reason to assume Darling would not be his own man and the challenge then
is to figure out what that might mean – a difficult feat since Darling seems to
be consummately practiced at creating a ripple-free surface.
After years in a series of prominent posts, not many people know what the
real Alistair Darling is about. The first of our scenarios, where he plays
Chancellor to Brown’s PM, raises the question of how much room Darling – or any
other Chancellor – would have to do their job.
The general feeling is that Brown would want to keep his thumb firmly on the
Treasury’s scales. This may explain why we haven’t had any serious media debate
as to whom the next Chancellor might be. “Brown strikes one as the kind of
person who takes his immediate previous job with him up the organisational
ladder,” says Bill Jamieson, executive editor of The Scotsman.
There are many examples of CEOs taking on the chairmanship of their
organisation and demonstrating a reluctance to relinquish their former
responsibilities. “My feeling is, Brown will take with him the key decisions on
matters such as taxation and changes in investment incentives. I also expect him
to maintain the tightest control over the big spending departments. I can’t
envisage a Brown premiership in which he does not have a firm grip on the
throats – or the more tender parts – of those departments,” says Jamieson.
Would this bother Darling? It might, if one could find any topic on which
Darling has spoken passionately about in recent years. As one leading Scottish
industrialist told Financial Director, “Darling doesn’t do passion.” The man
talks well and fluently on major issues, but what exactly does he care about
beyond implementing the party line like a skilful functionary?
He is said to have decided during his stint as transport secretary that in
order to avoid bias between Edinburgh and Glasgow airports, neither should get
fresh subsidies. That kind of thinking would not be out of place in the
In a recent speech in his capacity as trade and industry secretary, Darling
called on countries to abandon protectionism and accept globalisation as a force
for good. This could be seen as platitudinous, but the comments were made in
Washington to an audience of US politicians and business leaders, many of whom
want protectionism maintained at home, while simultaneously cheering for its
dismantling abroad. So it is perhaps a positive sign that Darling can tell it
like it is when occasion demands.
George Jones, political editor at the Daily Telegraph, calls Darling “a
politician who knows his own mind, and a man with a safe pair of hands”. In his
view, Darling would make a traditional Labour Chancellor, albeit one cast in the
Brown mould. “I would expect him to be high spending, but there is certainly not
much room for more taxes – not with a general election coming,” he says.
Jones does not believe Brown as PM will be able to retain a stranglehold on
the Treasury. “He will have his hands full as PM with domestic and foreign
policy issues,” he says.
He says the Treasury is now a much stronger department than it was 10 years
ago and whomever goes in there will have to head up a formidable machine. The
notion that any PM could use a Chancellor as a glove puppet is probably far
“Darling has proved he is a capable politician who gets the job done and does
not seek unnecessary dramas. He is respected in Whitehall and I think Brown
would trust him. But I certainly do not think he would be a cipher,” says Jones.
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