The long-simmering tension between Gordon Brown and his chancellor of the exchequer, Alistair Darling, spilled into the open this week, as two men lock horns over Britain’s stimulus package. Stryker McGuire on how history is repeating itself.
A British prime minister feuding with his chancellor of the exchequer. Sound familiar? It will to anyone with a cursory knowledge of recent British politics. The bitter feud between Tony Blair and his chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, was the defining dysfunction of Blair’s decade in office. It got so bad in the final months of Blair’s tenure that one Labour MP likened the quarrel to “an episode of The Sopranos.” Now, history looks to be repeating itself as Brown locks horns with his chancellor, Alistair Darling, over the size of a stimulus package to revive the British economy.
Will the bad blood between Brown and Darling end à la The Sopranos? In some ways, today there’s less at stake in the Brown-Darling fight. In other ways, Darling is poison for Brown.
Having pumped extra money into the economy late last year, Brown wants to do it again. Darling, echoing a view on the Continent and among other nations not weighed down by the kind of indebtedness that afflicts Britain and the United States, doesn’t think Britain can afford it. He argues quietly that the supposed solution would be worse than the putative cure. The conflict is all the more embarrassing for Brown just now because he’s hosting the G-20 Summit in London this week. One of Brown’s top agenda items? A global stimulus package.
The Brown-Darling feud has been simmering beneath the surface since last summer, when Brown sought to disentangle his own stewardship of the economy from the coming financial meltdown, playing down that he was at fault while playing up the fact that the crisis was caused mostly by the subprime-mortgage fiasco in the U.S. Darling, however, seemed to distance himself from Brown’s soft-pedalling of the crisis; he came right out and said the economic crisis could be the worst in 60 years and that the British people were “pissed off” with the government for not coming to terms with it.
In recent days, the mostly behind-the-scenes wrangling between 10 Downing Street and Brown’s next-door neighbor at No. 11 broke into the open when Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, warned that Britain is “facing very large fiscal deficits over the next two to three years.” Implicit in his remarks was a warning that the levels of public borrowing being contemplated by Brown were simply unsustainable. King’s intervention, said the Liberal Democrat Leader Vince Cable, amounted to “a very British coup d’etat by sending his tanks” against Brown. It also signaled, much to Brown’s displeasure, that the Bank of England and Darling’s troops at Treasury were on the same side.
Will the bad blood between Brown and Darling end à la The Sopranos? That’s unlikely. Blair spent countless hours despairing of Brown’s meddling and obstreperousness during their ten years in government together. As the man who held the purse strings and carried more weight than Blair when it came to key votes by parliamentarians on the Labour Party left, Brown was seen as such an obstacle to Blairite reforms that one of Blair’s senior advisers once told me he believed Downing Street under Blair had two great “enemies”—the leader of the Conservative Party and Gordon Brown.
In some ways, today there’s less at stake in the Brown-Darling fight. For one thing, Blair and Brown were classic knock-down, drag-out political rivals. In 1994, Brown had given way for Blair when the Labour Party leadership opened up; Blair, frankly, was seen by party reformers as the more electorally appealing of the two heading into the next election, which, when it was called in 1997, did in fact give Labour a thumping majority in the House of Commons. Darling has never been a rival to Brown in the way Brown was to Blair. Indeed, Darling, who as a boy was educated in Kirkcaldy, the Scottish constituency Brown represents in Parliament, and who, at 55, is three years younger than Brown, has benefited politically under Brown’s tutelage, having risen up through Treasury ministerial positions.
In other ways, however, Darling is poison for Brown. What makes Darling’s relatively mild-mannered disagreement so powerful is that right now is such a tipping-point political moment for Brown. Down in the polls, his government showing some signs of disarray, Continental leaders at his throat, and the Tories acting like a government-in-waiting, Brown is entering the most crucial period of his premiership. He has 14 months before he must call a general election. His one last hope for leading Labour to a historic fourth term in office—and leading them to victory for the first time as prime minister, since he waltzed “unelected” into office following Blair’s resignation in 2007—is his economic stewardship in general and the G-20 meeting in particular, where he hopes he will shine. If that didn’t look like a mission impossible before, it does now, thanks in part to one Alistair Darling.
Stryker McGuire is an American journalist working in London. McGuire is a contributing editor at Newsweek magazine, where he was a correspondent, bureau chief and editor for 30 years; the founding editor of International Quarterly, and an associate at Lombard Street Research, an economics consultancy in London.