Monday, June 01, 2009

Move Over, Darling

Apologies for the corny headline* – I just felt that while it's a gag that's been overused in the past, it's one we're about to see a fair bit of once the dust settles from the European Elections.

Alastair Darling is most high profile MP to date to be caught up in the firestorm over expenses. While the details of his claims needn't detain us here, let's have a quick look at the politics of the situation.

The member for Edinburgh South West (or Pentlands in old money) has, or rather had, a reputation as the safest pair of hands in the Labour Cabinet. While John Reid was the 'enforcer' of choice throughout the Blair years, it was Darling who was left to smooth ruffled feathers in departments and restore a bit of stability where previously there had been uproar.

Never ostentatious or attention seeking in manner, it was his advocate's mastery of the brief which was his strongest asset. Always ready to disarm an attack with a seemingly credible diversion, his could be made to sound like the voice of sweet reason. While John Reid was described once as having the knack for making any old cobblers sound plausible, Darling was the one who could sidetrack you into submission or spike your guns. Many a Conservative shadow was left bemused and befuddled by his deft footwork and seeming ability to dodge any political bullet headed his way.

Always close to Gordon Brown (they had both been around Edinburgh Labour politics for many years before either was elected), he was the natural choice to take over as Chancellor when Brown was elevated to the Premiership. He would even have been an outside bet to take over were Brown to have fallen under the proverbial number 38 bus. However, with the credit crunch and global crisis (it started in America, dontcha' know?), his star has been looking decidedly tarnished of late.

Of course, this isn't entirely fair. If the UK finds itself in straightened circumstances, it surely has a bit to do with the man who was Chancellor for a decade before him – for which step forward one Gordon Brown. As Chancellor, Brown made his own fiscal rules and bent them to suit, cutting down critics with staccato sten-gun volleys of statistics, aided by the covering fire of hear hears from braying backbenchers, most of whom, truth be told, didn't really have a clue what was going on at the Treasury. Nor did those backbenchers particularly care. Everything was fine – it must be true because Gordon says so. Record employment, stable finances, no more boom and bust, lowest mortgage rates for however many years blah blah blah... just so long as all the other parties were being held at bay, it was all good.

Except now they are not being held at bay. If the polls are to be believed, Labour faces a hammering at Thursday's Euro poll as voters seek to exact revenge on the government for the poor state of the economy and to show their disapproval for the expenses scandal. Brown has let it be known in advance that he will not step down as Prime Minister if the results are bad and, being realistic, it's hard to see who in Labour at Westminster might wish to step up to the plate in any case. Labour missed their chance to replace him last Autumn – with capital being made about his being a Prime Minister without the personal mandate of a general election victory, the prospects of Labour offering the country a second 'unelected' PM are slim. As such, the parliamentary infantry will remain bedraggled and demoralised by the prospect of almost certain defeat next year, while those in the bunker stay convinced that the non-existent battalions being pushed around their maps can be steeled once more to 'win the fight for Britain's Future'.

So, if Brown is to stay on, how does he convince us that there can be a new beginning under his watch? How can he show 'courage' and 'leadership' over expenses, while trying to make a symbolic break with the political past of which he is so much a part? More to the point, upon whom can he prevail to partake in a political 'Rite of Spring' to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, in the hope that his blood fertilises the soil for a bountiful harvest nest year? Just as Norman Lamont served this purpose for John Major, step forward (or down) Alistair Darling.

It's a dirty business sometimes, and Lamont was hardly a placid presence for Major following his dismissal. As Jeremy Thorpe said of MacMillan after the 'night of the long knives': “Greater love hath no man than this – that he lay down his friends for his life.”

*UPDATE: Actually, I'm no longer sorry at all. Newsnight has just used a bit of 'Move Over Darling' as background music, with Paxo making use of the Thorpe quote in his link. If it's good enough for the BBC...

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