June 18 2019 Latest news:

Alastair Darling

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IF you put ‘Alastair Darling’ into Google it soon becomes clear that a somewhat surprising number of people have searched for information on the former chancellor’s eyebrows, in fact, almost as many who have searched for ‘Alastair Darling MP’.

In person, it has to be said, that Mr Darling’s eyebrows are less of a caricature and more of an interesting facial feature, or maybe, as he basked under the dappled evening light of the Octagon Tower at Ely Cathedral to deliver a talk about his new book: Back from the Brink: 1,000 days a Number 11, they just appeared less prominent?

We were warned from the start of the book promotion event, organised by Topping & Company Booksellers of Ely that Darling had to leave in good time to catch the 9.08pm train back to London so we were always on a mission to get things done. To be fair his deliverance did not particularly feel hurried and he appeared relaxed.

It is worth mentioning at this juncture that Darling is one of only three Labour ministers who survived in the Cabinet over the 13 years that Labour was in power, the other two being Gordon Brown and Jack Straw. In that time, Darling held five cabinet positions, although his survival as chancellor, under Brown’s realm, was down to his own dogged determination to hang on to his job rather than his boss’s wishes.

His book, his first and last he says, covers the 1,000 days, from 2007-2010, he spent as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Brown. He says each one of those 1,000 days were difficult days. It could be argued they were infinitely more difficult than the 1,000 days Maxwell Anderson used to describe the fractious relationship between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII in his book Anne of a Thousand Days, but at least Darling didn’t lose his head, actually or figuratively, I suppose.

Most of the headlines, and indeed reviews of Darling’s book have centred on his stormy relationship with former PM Gordon Brown whose behaviour he describes as “appalling” and his moods as “brutal” and “volcanic”.

Darling started his talk by recalling the September of 2008 when in an interview with The Guardian newspaper he declared that the country was facing “the worst economic conditions for 60 years. In fact, we now know he had somewhat underestimated the fall-out of what was to come, but his comments came on the eve of the launch of Brown’s recovery plan and the PM was not happy. Darling talked candidly about this episode, admitting he was reluctant to take part in the newspaper interview with The Guardian, and it only went ahead because he insisted the journalist came to him, which happened to be the Outer Hebrides!

He now accuses the journalist of picking the most salient points from the interview (hmmm, that’s kinda how it works, Mr Darling!) and claims he merely wanted to make the point that the public should “brace themselves”.

It does, however, seem incredibly naive of him if he really didn’t realise the impact of his remarks and also the likelihood of them making national headlines, particularly as he is married to a journalist.

This episode set the tone for his stormy relationship with Brown and the former PM attempted to move him on in the June of 2009 but Darling refused to budge. He told the audience he had reached the point where he wanted out, but refused to be pushed. Ironically in the days and weeks that followed there must have been many dark hours, when he found himself drowning in the banking crisis, that he regretted that decision?

He did not use his platform at Ely Cathedral to add any more fuel to the Brown fire, but concentrated, instead, on the financial crisis which first reared its ugly head on his watch with the run on Northern Rock in September 2007 and then resurfacing later the near collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The most insightful moment came when he recalled what he described as the “dire straits” telephone call he received from the then chairman of the RBS, Sir Tom McKillop, informing him that the banking institution was a couple of hours away from collapse. He admitted this “Titanic” moment left him reeling as he couldn’t understand how it could be that in a few hours time this banking giant would run out of money, but this quickly turned to incredulity when he was then asked by McKillop what ‘he was going to do about it’.

My favourite anecdote of the evening came when Darling recalled a trip to the White House with Brown who was Premier at that time. Brown was in such a hurry he left his chancellor behind and Darling had to walk along the red carpet alone with the world’s press behind him, camera shutters poised, only to find the big door of the Oval Office firmly shut. Feeling incredibly foolish, he knocked on the door and when it was opened he was greeted by George Bush, who he admits he was never particularly fond of, but he said: “I don’t think I have ever been so pleased to see anyone.”

He rounded up by talking of regrets; his biggest being that although the country came through the banking crisis it “was not a convincing path”. He went on to talk about his two children who are now at an age where they are looking for work and he worries about “what’s out there for them”.

While this book has allowed Darling to set out his position and vent his spleen over Brown, important questions remain about how we ended up with a banking system on the brink of collapse. As Darling said himself: why did no-one see it coming and where did all the money go?

Sorry Mr Darling, you were Chancellor of the Exchequer and we are talking here about losses of, not millions or even billons of pounds, but trillions – some might say you yourself should have had a firmer grip on the situation. The book provides an important account of the political and social history of Darling’s 1,000 days but it also leaves a lot of unanswered questions.