With the publication of his new memoir, the former chancellor talks about Gordon Brown, economic meltdown and the time he was locked out of the White House.
Alistair Darling's memoir contains an anecdote of such peerless absurdity, you literally could not make it up. The chancellor and Gordon Brown were visiting the White House in November 2008, for a crisis summit of leaders and finance ministers, and set off in a cavalcade from the British embassy. But such was the size and self-importance of Brown's entourage, who piled into the fleet of cars, that the chancellor was left to find himself a space in the very last car. When Brown's car pulled up before the steps of the White House, and the cavalcade drew to a halt behind, Darling was still at the back of the queue, stuck outside the gates on the street. He got out, walked up the drive to the door, and found it closed.
"It was a very funny feeling. You've seen the White House all your life, and then you're walking up the steps of this house, and the door's shut, and there's all the world's press behind you taking pictures, and I thought, well, what if no one answers? Because you'll look bloody silly walking back down the stairs."
What went through his mind? "Well, my thinking was – and I never thought I'd think this – I've never been so glad to see President Bush. Because the door opened, and there was the proprietor, the president of the United States."
As he recalls the moment he has a dry chuckle – the wry sort of funny-old-world laugh of someone long past the point when anything could upset him. But he wasn't laughing at the time, was he? "Well, as I walked up the drive, and especially when I had to negotiate terms with a guy with a machine-gun, no, at that stage I was getting very pissed off. I thought this is ridiculous. I just thought this is so typical of what is happening now. You know, [Brown's entourage] were totally absorbed, it was like they were there with the Sun King."
What did he say to Brown when he got inside? "Nothing," Darling says. "I don't think he even noticed."
There was always a touch of the eternal bridesmaid about Darling. He jokes that his obituary will bear the epithet A Safe Pair of Hands, which I suspect he would consider a compliment, and he has seemed most at ease in the background. But before his memoir even went on sale this week, pre-orders alone had already put it second place on Amazon's bestseller list – and its revelations about the depths of dysfunction within Downing Street have made it a political sensation. When I congratulate him on producing a bestseller he looks rather boyishly pleased, but says he's worried that people think he's written a gossipy Westminster kiss and tell – when he never really wanted to write about his relationship with Brown at all.
"I wanted to give my account of the banking crisis, to leave my record. But because the banking crisis became an economic crisis, the two are totally inter-related, and you can't tell what I did as chancellor without touching upon the other crises that hit the government. You just can't tell half the story – and to be at all credible, I have to touch on things that I still find difficult."
It may have been difficult, but he looks so much more relaxed than he ever did in office that I wonder if the memoir became a form of therapy, or at least catharsis. "No," he says very quickly. "No, I'm not someone who needs a cathartic moment." The denial has a hint of Scottish distaste for such self-indulgence – but it's so swift that I'm not entirely convinced."Well, maybe I actually do and I don't know," he concedes. "But it didn't start out that way."
He had to explain his difficulties with Brown, he says, because otherwise none of his story would make sense. For example, "You can't explain the reaction to the interview I did with you three years ago without going into what I regard as the more unpleasant aspects of political life." In August 2008 I interviewed him at his croft in Lewis, and his assessment of the economic crisis facing the world – "arguably the worst in 60 years" – provoked an almighty commotion, fuelled largely by Brown's own aides, who briefed the media that Darling was either deluded and plain wrong (or naive and unprofessional), or treacherously disloyal. Darling later described their assault on him as "the forces of hell".
Darling in Washington in 2008 at the summit during which he got locked out of the White House.
"In some ways," he says, "I owe a debt of gratitude to the briefers. If they had done the usual thing – said they were happy with the chancellor, he's doing his job – it would all have blown over. But as it was it will be remembered. Very few things in politics cut through – and this one did, it cut through with a vengeance. The only critical thing you could say, really, is that I should have said 100 and not 60 years."
What a lot of people won't understand, I say, is why you didn't ring up Brown and say I'm the chancellor, tell your minions to shut up? "Well, you know, I did. I said this is just making it worse for everybody." So what did Brown say? "He just said it wasn't his people. I said well, if it isn't then some imposters are making a remarkably good fist of it. Anyway," he says, breaking off with a brisk shake of the head, "this is just – " but then he stops again. "No," he corrects himself, "it's not water under the bridge, because that weekend really scarred me."
He insists that he didn't think he had said anything controversial, let alone disloyal. Amid the furore, however, some critics interpreted his interview as a calculated strategy to undermine Brown. In fact, Darling says, he hadn't wanted to give an interview at all. He just wanted to go on holiday, to his family croft on Lewis.
"So my cunning plan was to say you'd have to come to the Outer Hebrides; I hoped the Guardian's finances wouldn't stretch to that. But it clearly didn't work." Does he regret what he said? "No, I thought it was important to tell the truth." The problem was, Darling's view of the truth differed radically from Brown's, who was busy telling journalists that the credit crunch would be over within six months.
It was the first very public sign of a clash between No 10 and 11, but Darling had realised he was no longer part of Brown's inner circle as soon as they became neighbours. He still doesn't know why. Had Darling shared, I ask, his colleagues' worries about Brown's famously "psychologically flawed" character before he succeeded Tony Blair? From his rather vague and evasive answers, I'd say that he did not, and was as surprised as many others when behaviour he'd attributed to Brown's grievance with Blair – secrecy, tantrums, paranoia – didn't vanish with his relocation to No10.
The contrast between the two personalities that emerges from Darling's memoir is so extreme, the miracle has to be how much they managed to achieve in spite of it. The person who Darling says kept him sane was his wife Maggie, an infectiously gregarious and irreverent former political journalist whom I met in 2008 on Lewis. At the time I remember wondering how on earth she could put up with Brown, and marvelled at the difference between the two families. I last saw her during the general election campaign, when she invited some women to No11 for drinks. As guests arrived she plonked their coats on the bed in their bedroom, for all the world as if it were a student house party. At some point in the evening her husband came home, and after a bit of chat went to bed. Later, another guest – a little worse for wine – tottered down the hall to retrieve her coat, swung the bedroom door open, and found herself gazing at the chancellor of the exchequer in his pyjamas in bed. As she backed out, doubled over with mortification, nobody was more convulsed with giggles than his wife.
When they left Downing Street for good a few weeks later, he says there was no lump in his throat or tear in his eye. In fact, after five bizarre days of post-election shenanigans between the party leaders, Darling was so fed up he wanted to leave by the back door. Did it feel farcical by then? "It did. Sitting in the flat, watching the TV, with helicopters going round and round overhead, and they were starting to film the back door. So Margaret said: 'This is ridiculous, we're going out the front door.' And she was right. She said we did our best for all these years. Why would we sneak out the back door? Let's leave with our heads high."
But he says no bit of him was secretly relieved to have lost the election. So what will he do instead of frontbench politics? "You continue to do backbench politics." Then if this is the end of your ministerial career, I begin to say – but he quickly interrupts.
"Well, it may not be."
Normally, when ministers lose office and write their memoirs they are practically giddy with indifference to any ramifications. Darling doesn't give the slightest impression of having detached from political life, or stopped caring for a minute. "One of the things I've noticed in myself," he agrees, "is that in some of the dark days in government, you could hardly bear to listen to the radio or watch the telly. But I've noticed since being in opposition I probably listen to more current affairs than I ever did. My interest in politics is as alive as it's ever been."
Interest in Darling remains as alive as ever as well. In the mounting economic crisis, he is looking like one of the few politicians who might have a clue what to do, and the day after we meet I run into a Tory MP who says she can't wait to read his book. An awful lot of her colleagues, she adds, believe it's only thanks to Darling that the country isn't in even more of a mess.
"Yeah, but people are always nice to you when you leave," Darling says when I cite his widespread popularity. "It's like at a funeral. People are always terribly nice about the deceased even though they had plenty to say when you were alive."
In 2008 I asked him if leading Labour held any appeal to him, and he said no. "Well," he laughs, "I'm consistent. No, I'm not remotely interested in that, nothing's changed there. To be leader you have to want to do it, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and I don't. I really don't. And on the way down from Edinburgh last week, when the phone started going about the leaks of my memoir, it brought back so many memories. And actually, I've enjoyed the last year. Because it's great when people don't phone you."
But he admits: "There are lots of times in the last year – or even now – when I would like to be involved and in government again. What is so frustrating is that we were actually coming out of recession when we left office."
In Darling's view, countries across Europe are making the same mistake as Britain's government by imagining that cuts will reduce their deficits. "That's true when the economy is working at full capacity. But it is not true when it isn't." There is still time, he says, for George Osborne to change course and invest public money to boost growth. But is that politically plausible? "There's lots of things you can do in politics if you execute the manoeuvre in an elegant enough manner."
Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the Tories have convinced many voters that the deficit is not a consequence of the recession, but of Labour's profligacy. This, he insists, is categorically untrue – "But you're right, it's a huge political problem for us. One of the challenges for both Eds is to cut through that, because I think the policy we have of a more measured approach to these things is perfectly credible, and independent commentators will say the same thing. There is every chance, the ground is there. But like everything else in politics, you have to take your moment."
Would Labour be doing better under David Miliband – the candidate Darling endorsed last year, and met in secret the previous year to discuss deposing their leader? "It's impossible to tell," is Darling's diplomatic reply. What about the claims made by Daily Telegraph bloggers and Tory cabinet ministers that Darling's book has damaged Labour's chance of re-election? "I certainly hope not. Would I write it in five years' time, just before the next election? No. That would be damaging. But my book's main purpose was to chronicle the economic and banking crisis."
He thinks Europe is on the brink of another spectacular crisis, because Greece cannot possibly deliver its austerity package, and Europe's leaders are incapable of taking unified action to prevent catastrophe. "I know the EU sufficiently well," he says wearily, "and I've been in enough meetings to know that nothing will happen until it looks like the thing's about to blow up." What the eurozone urgently needs, he says, is a plan – any plan.
"Markets are rational and irrational at the same time. They are irrational in saying they want to cut debt immediately and they want growth, because you can't get the two. Markets are now worried about growth. What's really spooking them at the moment is that in Europe they don't see a plan, they see the eurozone coming together, making an announcement, and a few weeks later it seems to be unravelling. That is what really throws people. What people are looking for is, what is your plan?"
As for himself, he says his only plan for now is to make no plans. He doesn't know if or when he would return to the frontbench, or what else he would do. For a long time it was always assumed that if anyone was going to follow Downing Street with a major international finance position, it would be Brown. No one predicted that it would be Darling – but when I ask if he'd be interested in such a post, his reply is interestingly evasive. "Well, there aren't many of them – so, um, you know," and he lets the sentence tail off into silence. But according to the Westminster rumour mill, Osborne is ready to nominate Darling to lead the IMF if its new incumbent, Christine Lagarde, is forced to stand down in the face of a corruption trial in France.
"It's news to me," Darling says. "No, there have been no discussions about it – and nor will there be."
Would such a post appeal? "Er, er, well, put it another way, I need something to keep my mind occupied. I'm young, and I'd like to practise what I preach and work well beyond 65. So what I'll do I don't know."