March 26, 2010 2:00 am
Gordon Brown will come under heavy ministerial pressure to keep Alistair Darling as his chancellor if Labour clings to power at the election, as opinion polls continued to point towards a possible hung parliament.
Mr Darling's Budget was viewed by many ministers and Labour MPs as a political success in spite of negative media coverage. They believe the low-key chancellor has become a valuable election weapon.
Although the Conservatives derided Mr Darling's statement as "empty" and hopelessly inadequate, many Labour MPs believe it provided economic stability and applauded the squeeze on the rich and the banks.
One minister said that if the prime minister held on to power and tried to sack Mr Darling, he might face a cabinet uprising. "He might struggle to find enough people to fill the other seats around the cabinet table," said one.
Another said: "Alistair delivered a serious, business-orientated budget that ticked all the right boxes. He has gone from strength to strength during his time as chancellor and is genuinely popular with colleagues."
The positive briefings about Mr Darling are a warning to Mr Brown by ministers who fear he would replace Mr Darling with Ed Balls, the schools secretary, if Labour emerged from the election as the biggest party.
They confirm the continuing hostility towards Mr Brown's protégé within the Labour party, but also the fact some ministers are seriously contemplating the hitherto unlikely scenario they might hold on to power.
A YouGov poll for The Sun yesterday gave the Tories a two-point lead over Labour, a result that could yield Labour the most seats in a hung parliament.
An Ipsos Mori poll for Reuters yesterday put Labour ahead in crucial marginal seats, backed by 41 per cent of those certain to vote compared with 37 per cent for the Tories.
That result is less bad than it sounds for the Conservatives: it is a five-point swing to the Tories compared with the 2005 election but suggests David Cameron would not secure an overall Commons majority.
Ministers believe that if Mr Brown did survive as prime minister, it would be after heavy loss of seats and as head of a minority government. In those circumstances, they believe he would be forced to stick with Mr Darling as a signal of stability to the markets.
"Gordon Brown would have to secure a 1997-type majority for colleagues to accept Ed Balls as chancellor after the next election," said a minister. "That is not all that likely to happen."
Mr Darling confirmed yesterday that he would like to see through the task of cutting the £167bn deficit.
Asked on Sky News whether he would like to remain in the Treasury, Mr Darling said: "Yes." He added: "It's very touching that people are so concerned about me but the first thing we have to do is win the election."
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