Monday, February 18, 2008


Alistair Darling on Today: Shattered Credibility and An Incredible Interview

Oh my. Regular readers will know I often find interviews on the Today Programme frustrating, rubbish or just plain barking. This morning’s ten past eight special, however, may have found a new winner. Alistair Darling’s outright stream of lies just now was the least convincing performance I can remember, making Andy Burnham seem almost informed and David Cameron seem borderline competent. It hinged, or perhaps unhinged, on his trying to persuade John Humphrys and the listener that the words “I agree with my Honourable Friend” in fact meant ‘I reserve my position entirely and in no way endorse your view’. Mr Humphrys wasn’t having it. I doubt a single listener in the country believed the Chancellor, either.

Labour’s Ex-Policy On Northern Rock: Close Your Eyes and Wish For Luck

We all know that it’s embarrassing for the Labour Government that they’ve been forced to nationalise Northern Rock after months not only of dithering but of constantly attacking Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable for, er, saying they had to nationalise. The months of dithering since Vince set out the cold facts as to why temporary nationalisation was the least worst option haven’t changed any of those facts, but they have changed the amount of taxpayers’ money the Labour Government was pouring down the drain: Mr Darling has unnecessarily lost many millions more to stave off the moment when he’d have to capitulate and nationalise. That’s a very expensive piece of political vanity. It’s been clear for many months now that a realistic private deal that would safeguard taxpayers’ money was sheer fantasy.

Richard Branson is bleating this morning, but what can you expect when his proposal was to put in less than 2p of Virgin money for every pound from the taxpayer and only pay us back our money once he’d already made a 75% profit? I’m sure I’d be upset, too, at losing the prospect of so much money for next to nothing, but when the proposal was so Del Boy even this Chancellor saw him coming then it’s Virgin’s own fault for gambling the Labour Government would be dumb enough to take any deal to spare them from nationalisation. And, to be fair, for several months they looked like they would be that dumb. And I doubt there’ll be too much sympathy for the shareholders waving lawsuits and synthetic outrage this morning, either. Not only are many of the big shareholders speculators who came in after Northern Rock collapsed and was bailed out by the Labour Government, simply hoping to make a fast buck at the taxpayers’ expense, but even those who’ve been in it for the long haul have been treated incredibly well by the Chancellor. How many other people get the Government stepping in to keep their dreams afloat after the nag they’ve put their cash on falls at the fence? The shareholders would have lost everything had the Government not stepped in to save their bankrupt bank. Do they not understand what their bank having gone effectively, um, bankrupt meant?

So why did the Labour Government wait so long, and waste so much more money? Vince Cable has been calling for short-term nationalisation since last Autumn, largely because the Labour Government had already sunk all the taxpayers’ cash of a major nationalised industry but failed to guarantee getting any of it back. Back in December, Vince observed:
“The government now seems to have got the worst of all possible worlds. It’s effectively nationalised the liabilities of the bank, while at the same time it doesn’t control it, it doesn’t own it, and if it is sold then all of the upside, all of the capital gains will accrue to speculative investors and not to the taxpayers.”
The reason behind Labour’s expensive delay is very simple. Everything has been about not running the economy, but hoping against all reason that something would turn up to save the Chancellor’s face. And, more importantly, as my learned friend Millennium Dome has identified by dubbing Mr Darling “Sooty”, the real Chancellor who gives Mr Darling his orders is the Prime Minister, whose reputation for economic competence plummets further by the day. Soo… Terror and vanity. Great principles on which to run an economic policy!

The Liberal Democrats, of course, are a free-market party because we know that’s mostly what works, and so can advocate intervening from time to time if that works without having the screaming oopizootics. Labour are a free-market party – these days – because they eventually realised that being socialists was unpopular, and now they’ll do almost anything to avoid people thinking they’ve gone socialist again. The Conservatives are a free-market party by religion, and regard any deviation by mere pragmatic empiricism as blasphemy against the Church of Thatchianity; it isn’t necessary to test in which circumstances the free market might not work, because it always does (glassy-eyed stare).

That’s why in last November’s big debate on Northern Rock, Vince Cable said that short-term nationalisation was unpalatable but the only viable answer left; Alistair Darling attacked Vince, because he still hoped he might be able to look tough; and George Osborne attacked Mr Darling but had not a single word of alternative proposal, because his faith refused to allow him to admit the possibility of such blasphemy. Of course, the odd excommunicated Thatchianist like Ken Clarke was free to agree with Vince on nationalisation, but – unlike Mr Osborne – Mr Clarke has run the economy, so what would he know? While Mr Darling has spent months dithering and praying he doesn’t have to face up to the facts, Mr Osborne has spent months constantly changing his position on everything but that it’s all Mr Darling’s fault, because he can’t admit the facts even exist. As Steve Richards writes in today’s Independent:
“Yet the Conservatives' credibility is being tested too. They began by supporting the Government. Subsequently they condemned Mr Brown and Mr Darling and warned against nationalisation without coming up with a clear alternative. Yesterday the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, attacked the Government for not taking the decision to nationalise earlier while making clear he still opposed this particular course. Mr Osborne is getting good at having his cake and eating it, but this is not a sequence that suggests the Conservatives value consistency and coherence over opportunism.”
What Mr Darling Said and Why He Tried to Unsay It

Where the Chancellor came so mind-bogglingly unstuck in this morning’s interview is very simple. John Humphrys threw a quote at him with which the Chancellor had previously agreed, and Mr Darling then spent several minutes saying that, because he hadn’t actually said the words with which he was asked to agree and explicitly did so, he couldn’t possibly be associated with them. Faced with this novel interpretation of the words “I agree,” Mr Humphrys became more and more incredulous, as did Richard and I. A lot of the time, listeners can come away with completely different impressions of an interview – one person’s bully is another’s only way of getting to the truth – but I find it hard to imagine how anyone can have listened to Mr Darling this morning and not thought ‘Why won’t he just tell the truth and move on?’

I’ve already referred to the 19th of November last’s big Northern Rock debate in the House of Commons, in which Vince was practical and consistent, Mr Osborne was vacuous and Mr Darling hoped a magic rope would unfurl from the sky for him to climb. The subject of Mr Darling’s embarrassing lies this morning was this exchange, in which Jim Cousins (Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central, frightened of the Liberal Democrats Labour) asked him a question and he answered:
“Does my right hon. Friend accept that the policy of nationalisation would lead to a slow lingering death for the jobs of the Northern Rock workers, its assets and Britain's reputation as a major financial services centre, with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor cast in the role of undertaker—and that only by finding a successor business to grow on those jobs, assets and reputations can we offer any real prospect of the taxpayers getting their money back?”

“I agree with my hon. Friend.”
Now that Mr Darling has taken the course of action that the Liberal Democrats said he’d have to take all along, the one of which he’d previously agreed would “lead to a slow lingering death” with himself “cast in the role of undertaker,” of course you can understand that Mr Darling is very embarrassed. Everybody knows that admitting he’d said this would lead to headlines about U-turns and gaffes, and every politician tries to avoid those, but get some perspective, man! Any embarrassing headlines about what you said in a debate in November pale into nothing next to the humiliating headlines about the nationalisation itself. And on a morning where the Labour Government’s entire economic policy has just done a U-turn, the way to rebuild trust in what you’re saying is not to stick to an obvious lie and hope nobody’s listening. ‘I made a mistake’ is hard to say, but it’s much more damaging to have listeners realise they just can’t believe a word you say, when you spend several minutes insisting that the words “I agree” mean nothing and that because you personally didn’t say words that you directly endorsed you can pretend you never had anything to do with them.

Now, to be fair to Mr Darling, Mr Humphrys (with his usual lazy, arrogant lack of preparation) first gave him the open goal of suggesting Mr Cousins’ words were Mr Darling’s rather than merely words which Mr Darling had expressly accepted, and it’s also true that Mr Cousins’ question was as part of an attack on the Liberal Democrats – Mr Cousins and all those Labour MPs who attacked the policy of short-term nationalisation put forward by Vince Cable last year will be just as embarrassed this morning, and I look forward to seeing if they stick to their ‘principled’ and ‘informed’ attacks of the last few months and vote against the Labour Government’s nationalisation today – so I suspect Mr Darling just wanted to join in. But just as he wouldn’t tell the truth about being hardline against nationalisation, he couldn’t tell the truth about why he did it and why he slithered back from it straight afterwards: ‘I was given the opportunity to put the boot into a political opponent and, in the heat of a debate and being more interested in looking tough than in the best interests of taxpayers, I took it. But I realised straight away that he might turn out to be right anyway and immediately tried to leave myself a way out by contradicting what I’d just said, so it’s very unfair of you to say that I’m only contradicting myself three months later.’ No, that doesn’t really hit the spot either. Either way, he’d have had to admit that he’d been attacking the Liberal Democrats for purely partisan reasons when we were right all along and he was wrong. Unfortunately, just the act of nationalisation was admitting that in a pretty big way, so why not just say you were wrong and have changed your mind, get on with selling the new policy and emerge with some credibility? A desperately shifty Chancellor who won’t tell the truth even about a small thing and even when caught bang to rights is the last person to inspire fresh economic confidence.

This interview should be available on the Radio 4 website for the rest of the day, if you want to listen to the whole thing again. If you do, don’t stop once they finally move past Mr Darling’s denials that he agreed with what he agreed with last November. It moves into another Vaudeville routine in which he denies that he refuses to use the word “nationalisation”… All the while still refusing to use the word “nationalisation”. He just doesn’t learn, does he? You’d think after all the fuss about their never-ending spin, someone in the Labour Government would realise that it’s actions that count, not just words.

George Bush – the rubbish President, not the completely diabolically disastrous one – once described Ronald Reagan’s fiscal proposals as “Voodoo economics”. Before he swallowed that attack and joined Mr Reagan’s ticket as Vice-President (yes, the ‘I’ll attack it before I have to end up delivering it’ does sound like Mr Darling, doesn’t it? And what about “Read my lips – no new taxes”?). Mr Darling’s approach also seems to be based on magic thinking, a variation on the old idea that as long as you keep your ‘true name’ secret no-one can have power over you. He evidently believes that, whatever he does, if he doesn’t actually say the words himself, his trick remains completely invisible. Mr Darling, surviving sawing the economy in half needs a better bit of conjuring than putting your faith in magic words.

Update: It’s lovely to have been featured on this week’s Golden Dozen, and in Casting the Net – but as I didn’t get round to submitting my own nominations for the Golden Dozen this time, I ought to mention a few here. Three pieces particularly stood out for me, all on the subject of Northern Rock, and all in their different ways taking the Tories’ so-called ‘alternative’ to pieces. So have a look at what Millennium Dome, Paul Walter and John Hemming had to say.

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