IN an election where the state of the economy is likely to be more central than ever to the outcome, it is not surprising that the identity of the next Chancellor is almost as burning an issue as that of the next Prime Minister.
From being seen at one time as a weak link in Labour’s armoury – not least by Gordon Brown himself who wanted to replace him with Ed Balls – Alastair Darling has unexpectedly emerged as one of the government’s few genuine assets.
Okay, so his third Budget ten days ago contained no new ideas and few positive reasons to vote Labour on May 6 save that of ‘better the devil you know.’
But that was not the point. Somehow, Mr Darling seems to have established himself in the public’s mind as that rare thing in 21st Century Britain – a politician who tells it like it is.
So the TV confrontation this week between Mr Darling and his opposition shadows Vince Cable and George Osborne was one of the more eagerly awaited events of the seemingly interminable pre-election countdown.
It was given added spice by the fact that Mr Osborne’s political trajectory has been almost the diametric opposite of Mr Darling’s over the past two and a half years.
Back in the autumn of 2007, he was the Tory hero whose bold promise to raise inheritance tax thresholds was seen as largely responsible for putting the frighteners on Mr Brown’s election plans.
But just as that IT pledge has become something of a millstone around the Tories’ necks in these more straitened times, so Mr Osborne has become increasingly perceived as their ‘weakest link.’
It was very clear from the Tory Shadow Chancellor’s performance in Monday night’s debate that he had been reading the findings of Labour’s focus groups which called him “shrill, immature and lightweight.”
But in his efforts to appear statesmanlike, he rather over-compensated, leading one pundit to describe he and Mr Darling as “the bland leading the bland.”
Instead, it was Mr Cable who earned the lion’s share of the audience applause on the night, for instance over his refusal to indulge in impossible promises on NHS spending.
So which one of them, if any, will be Chancellor? It’s not necessarily as straightforward a question as it may seem.
Sure, if Labour wins outright, Mr Darling will stay on. Mr Brown has already been forced to say as much, putting his old ally Mr Balls’ ambitions on hold once more.
But in the event of a Tory victory, or a hung Parliament, the situation becomes much less clear cut.
There have long been rumours in Tory circles that Mr Osborne won’t go to 11 Downing Street even if they win outright.
The talk is that David Cameron could give the job of sorting out the economic mess either to old-hand Ken Clarke, or to right-wing axe-man Philip Hammond.
Most intriguing is the fate of Mr Cable. Clearly he will not be Chancellor in a Lib Dem government – but could he hold the role in a Labour or Tory-led coalition?
The short answer to that is yes. For all Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s refusal to play the ‘kingmaker,’ securing the Treasury for Mr Cable is likely to be central to any post-election deal in a hung Parliament.
The opinion polls continue to point to this as the likeliest election outcome, with the Tory lead still insufficient to give them an outright majority.
The race for Number 10 clearly lies between Mr Cameron and Mr Brown. But in the race for Number 11, it is the Liberal Democrat contender who is in pole position.