Even before Northern Rock collapsed and the financial crisis exploded, Alistair Darling was already wrangling with an unenviable inheritance as chancellor of the exchequer.
Not only was he having to follow in the footsteps of the longest-serving chancellor of modern times – a man who presided over an almost unprecedentedly long period of stability and growing prosperity – he was doing so under the shadow of that same man.
After years of waiting, in June 2007 Gordon Brown had finally taken over as prime minister, and he had little intention of allowing anyone else to meddle with the economic plans he had laid out in his time at the Treasury.
Most officials would have crumpled in the face of this task, but Darling was a consummate politician – a smooth, unshowy operator who rarely ruffled feathers, despite having led some of the most challenging departments in Whitehall.
He had been work and pensions secretary, transport secretary and trade secretary too.
Competent and capable, he was also, crucially, less cursed with ego than most of his counterparts.
And when he got the job it seemed quite likely that he would spend most of his time being overshadowed by the prime minister, but then, a couple of months in, Britain’s mortgage securitisation market froze.
Within a few weeks, Northern Rock was in big trouble.
By September, the high street lender was effectively finished, seeking emergency support from the Bank of England and triggering the first bank run since Victorian times.
Darling’s time in office would be defined by the financial crisis, by the collapse not just of Northern Rock but of other British banking icons, by the nationalisation of RBS and, more importantly still, the deep recession that followed.
This was a global financial crisis, but Britain, with its global banking system and strong dependence on the sector, was worse hit than most countries.
The slump was deep and so too was the impact on Britain’s public finances.
Moreover, having managed and steered this system for more than a decade up until recently, there was no mistaking which politician was most responsible for Britain’s part in the malaise: the new PM.
Yet for most of his time in office Darling maintained his composure and attempted to clean up the mess without briefing about his predecessor’s part in it.
A scarred relationship with Gordon Brown
Tellingly, the moment that most scarred his relationship with Gordon Brown came when Darling warned that Britain was facing “the worst downturn in 60 years”.
While Darling suggested that crisis would be “more profound and long-lasting than people thought”, Brown believed (or wanted to believe) that it would all be over in six months.
There were furious briefings from “Gordon’s attack dogs”, as Darling later put it, suggesting that the chancellor had lost the plot. It was, Darling said, like the “forces of hell” had been deployed against him.
“I won’t deny,” he wrote in his memoirs some years later, “that this episode was deeply hurtful and that it shaped a difficult relationship for the rest of our term in office”.
The gentlemanly path
It was a telling moment in other respects. For it underlined what mattered most to Darling.
While Brown was desperate to avoid having to internalise or publicise the bad news facing the country, Darling was compelled to be honest.
While Brown would routinely use his press officials to brief against his opponents, Darling preferred to take the gentlemanly path.
But the rift that grew between No 10 and No 11 would in other respects prove a blessing to Alistair Darling. In the following years he grew in stature and independence.
No-one suggested in the months that ensued, as he implemented the tax cuts and then rises in the face of recession, that he wasn’t his own man.
And while it is hard to take much that is positive from this period in British history, it would arguably have been very different (and potentially far worse) had it not been for Alistair Darling.
Perhaps the most significant moment came when he resisted the pressure (including aggressive phone calls from the US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson) for Barclays to take over Lehman Brothers as the American investment bank careered towards collapse.
How different Britain’s fate would have been had it absorbed Lehman’s toxic waste and instruments onto its balance sheet.
An elder statesman
After leaving office, Darling did much as he had while in office.
He tried to be the statesman. He led the Better Together campaign during the Scottish independence referendum.
He sat in the House of Lords until 2020. He did not shout from the side lines but very quickly became an elder statesman, respected and admired across political divides.
Perhaps his greatest legacy is something else, something quite intangible.
It is hard to think of many politicians who will be remembered with such affection – as a good man, a kind man.
His loss, so much earlier than expected, leaves British politics a sadder, somewhat less dignified place.
Elon Musk sues OpenAI and Sam Altman, saying company putting profit over the public good
Elon Musk, the multi-billionaire owner of Tesla and X, is suing artificial intelligence company OpenAI, accusing the firm of prioritising profit over developing AI for the public good.
Mr Musk is bringing the suit against OpenAI, which he co-founded, and its chief executive, Sam Altman, for breaching a contract by reneging on its pledge to develop AI carefully and make the tech widely available.
The company behind the ground-breaking generative AI chatbot, ChatGPT, has “been transformed into a closed-source de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company, Microsoft”, a court filing said.
The court action is the latest in a series of challenges to Mr Altman who was ousted from his position at OpenAI by the company board and briefly went to work at Microsoft, OpenAI’s biggest shareholder, before being returned to his post.
The AI giant was originally founded as a not-for-profit company but has grown to have commercial interests, which has caused tension between board members and founders.
By embracing a close relationship with Microsoft, OpenAI and its top executives have set that pact “aflame” and are “perverting” the company’s mission, Mr Musk alleges in the lawsuit.
“Under its new board, it is not just developing but is actually refining an AGI [artificial general intelligence] to maximize profits for Microsoft, rather than for the benefit of humanity”, the filing said.
A key part of OpenAI’s mission to benefit humanity, the court filing said, was to make the company software open source and share it, but this has not happened.
Instead, the company operates on a for-profit model.
Mr Musk has his own AI company, called xAI and has said OpenAI is not focused enough on the potential harms of AI.
As well as alleging breach of contract, Mr Musk’s claim said OpenAI is violating fiduciary duty and is engaged in unfair business practices. A jury trial has been sought by Mr Musk.
OpenAI and Microsoft have been contacted for comment.
Home Office figures show how vital immigration is to the economy
The Home Office immigration system statistics for 2023 tell a different story to the one that dominates the political discourse.
While government commentary and policy has focused on illegal migration via small boats, the largest driver of rising immigration is people coming to work, primarily in a health and care sector that would not function without them.
Some 616,000 work visas were issued in 2023, 337,240 to “primary applicants”, up 26% on 2022 and a staggering 250% rise on pre-pandemic levels, with a further 279,131 to their dependants, an increase of 81%.
Health and social care visas were the largest driver of the increase, the number almost doubling in a year to 146,477, with more than 100,000 of these granted to carers.
This expansion is the consequence of a deliberate policy decision in 2021 to make up a post-COVID, post-Brexit shortfall in staff.
With preferential status removed from European Union candidates, east Asia and west and southern Africa are the primary source of care workers.
More than 18,000 came from India, with 7,000 from Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively. A further 18,000 came from Nigeria, 15,000 from Zimbabwe and 10,000 from Ghana.
Applications for skilled work visas in other sectors were broadly flat, perhaps reflecting a cooling labour market in a flatlining economy that has almost a million job vacancies and 2.5 million workers classified as long-term sick.
Home Secretary James Cleverly has moved to cut numbers, banning care workers from bringing dependents, a change that may force recruiters to spread the net even wider to fill holes in British care homes.
The minimum salary threshold for skilled worker visas is also rising to £38,700 a year, up more than 50% and now more than the average salary, but such is the acute challenge of the NHS, health and care employers are exempt from paying the new figure.
One area where the government can point to falling immigration is among students but that will be no cause for celebration in higher education, where overseas candidates underwrite the cost of the domestic population.
Student visa applications fell 5% to 616,000, reflecting a more competitive international market and a tightening of rules from this year, which will see only postgraduates able to bring family members with them.
There was also a small decrease in the number of temporary visas granted to season workers in agriculture, who now overwhelmingly come from central Asia, but that was offset by a rise in youth mobility visas granted to under-30s from 12 eligible countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
From health and care to agriculture and education, cutting immigration will come at a price.
Sainsbury’s to cut 1,500 jobs in cost-cutting plan
Sainsbury’s has revealed plans to cut around 1,500 roles as part of a previously announced shake-up of its operations.
Sky News revealed earlier this month how the company, which also owns Argos, had refused to rule out job losses under the strategy update for investors.
It included a greater focus on food within its supermarkets, claiming more space from general merchandise and clothing.
Sainsbury’s said it was also targeting greater use of automation under the plans, which aimed to save £1bn over three years to boost investment in the business.
The company said it hoped to redeploy many of the 1,500 people affected by the changes.
The jobs will go at its store support centre, contact centre operations, in its in-store bakeries and in its general merchandise fulfilment network.
Sainsbury’s said it had proposed to colleagues in its Widnes contact centre, who operate the Careline service, that they should transfer to an existing partner.
It said a more efficient way of providing its bakery service meant jobs would go in that part of the business.
Chief executive Simon Roberts said: ”Our Next Level Sainsbury’s strategy is about giving customers more of what they come to Sainsbury’s for – outstanding value, unbeatable quality food and great service.
“One of the ways we’re going to deliver on this promise is through our Save and Invest to Win programme.
“As we move into the next phase of our strategy, we are making some difficult, but necessary decisions.
“The proposals we’ve been talking to teams about today are important to ensure we’re better set up to focus on the things that create a real impact for our customers, delivering good food for all of us and building a platform for growth.
“I know today’s news is unsettling for affected colleagues and we will do everything we can to support them.”
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