Anthony Hilton: The day Darling told the truth

When Chancellor Alistair Darling announced in an interview with The Guardian last August that Britain faced some of the most challenging economic times for 60 years, the effect was dramatic. The tone of his analysis and the fact that it was he who said it created shock across the country.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

Given that he was also a senior politician in a party in trouble, there was also, of course, much dark speculation about his motives. But, taken at face value, his remarks have important lessons for companies that face similar torrid times. In essence, Darling was conditioning expectations. While Prime Minister Gordon Brown had long been reciting the mantra that Britain was well placed to cope with the economic storms, Darling clearly decided it would be much more effective to condition people to expect the worst. His boss was pursuing the wrong communications strategy.

Darling set out to change perceptions so that once everyone expected things to be truly awful, almost anything that happened would lose its capacity for surprise. People beaten into resignation, cowed by the enormity of the financial chaos, were more likely ‘to cling to nurse for fear of something worse’.

It has worked probably better than he hoped. Next week we have the Budget and normally the preceding days and weeks see a rash of speculation about potential tax cuts and giveaways. Not this year. No-one is expecting anything other than a grim message. If Darling can find any cause for optimism, any hint of a turning point, he is likely to receive a great reception.

Well, perhaps that’s going a bit far. But last summer the Government, by being overly bullish in what were clearly going to be bad times, was exposing itself to the risk that every setback would be seen as a failure.

Now we have had setbacks galore, bailouts and disasters all over the place, but while people might not like the Government, it is not universally viewed as incompetent and it still has an outside chance of winning the next election. If eventually it does, the turning point will be seen as last August when Darling told the unvarnished truth.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London’s Evening Standard

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