It is the journalistic equivalent of crossing the Sahara by rowing boat. It is asking a chef to produce an edible meal from nothing more than a tin of mung beans, a satsuma and a jar of pickled walnuts. It is directing the Kidderminster amateur operatic society’s unabridged version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The challenge? To find out what makes Alistair Darling tick, a task to be carried out in under an hour, in his government offices and in the presence of a civil servant.
There are, I know, worse jobs: teaching binary maths to ten-year-olds; personal assistant to Mary Archer; chiropody. But Darling, Secretary of State for Transport and Scotland, is officially Britain’s most boring politician. In a CyberBritain poll a year ago, he fought off a close challenge from Iain Duncan Thingy to emerge triumphant with 2,678 votes. He has been certified as more sedative-like than John Swinney, duller than Douglas Alexander and more wearisome than Jim Wallace. In a contest with ditchwater, it is highly likely that Darling would win in the ennui stakes.
This in itself strikes me as interesting. The first canon of political orthodoxy is to get noticed. The second is to stay noticed. While politicians vie with each other to prostrate themselves on the altar of celebrity - a slot on Have I Got News For You is the ultimate prize - Darling has been busy perfecting his own brand of bland. He told a gathering of businessmen that he had been practising driving at 69 miles an hour on motorways to avoid those ‘speeding minister’ headlines. When I ask him how he celebrated his recent 50th birthday, he says, "Addressing the CBI Scotland." He may be nobody’s darling, but the contra-cyclical politician is always worth watching.
This reputation for tedium is no mean achievement, considering he is one of only a handful of politicians to have held a seat in Tony Blair’s cabinet since Labour came to power in 1997. Darling is also one of the most written about MPs at Westminster - his name crops up in more than 500 articles a month in British newspapers. And he is responsible for a department that has claimed more ministerial scalps in a more spectacular fashion than any other. "Since the war, they’ve lasted about one a year," he says of his predecessors at the department of transport.
Actually, my search for Darling’s soul gets off to a promising start. I am shown into his office in Edinburgh’s Melville Crescent - and what a strange room it is. It is Brigadoon meets Lewis Grassic Gibbon, with a dash of Carol Smillie; self-consciously Scottish, deeply melancholic and ‘designed’ to within an inch of its skirting boards. The curtains are made from tweed. "Everything in the room is Scottish," says Darling with a slight trace of awe in his voice, "even the carpet."
The effect is not unpleasant, just odd, gloomy and a touch obsessive. I’m sensing an unlikely Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen streak to the ‘minister for jocks ’n’ docks’. "It was all done by Brian Wilson," he continues. Suddenly the decor makes perfect sense.
Clearly, the world of interiors is not the way to his inner sphere. Perhaps a delve into his past might be more enlightening. Darling leaps to the challenge with a discourse on his former incarnation as an Edinburgh solicitor. I hear all about the pulsating life of a litigation lawyer in the Edinburgh office of McGrigor Donald.
Darling’s past is a foreign country for which he appears to have lost the map. There are numerous intriguing clues to his personality, but they take rather a lot of unearthing. He is part of a well-to-do, old Conservative Edinburgh family, but he might as well be related to the Darlings of Peter Pan fame, such is his reticence about his roots.
His family, he says, "was not especially political", although that doesn’t seem to have stopped rather a lot of them standing for parliament. His grandfather was a Liberal candidate and his great-uncle, Sir William Young Darling, was a Tory MP and provost of Edinburgh during the war. His name lives on in the Sir William Darling Memorial Prize, awarded annually to Edinburgh University students for good citizenship.
"He was MP for Edinburgh South from 1945, and had a stroke in 1957," says Darling of his Tory ancestor. "I was four at that time, and he just withdrew from everybody. I’d have liked to have met him. For a long time I used to go canvassing in Edinburgh and little old ladies, whom I am pretty sure were not natural Labour supporters, would say, ‘I remember your great-uncle. Of course I’ll vote for you.’
"My grandfather, I knew a lot better. He stood as a Liberal candidate in 1945 - and, paradoxically, split the Tory vote and let the Labour candidate in. He spoke to me a lot about current affairs."
Darling’s father, Thomas Young Darling, was an engineer who achieved a double first at Cambridge. "He was a one-nation Tory in the mould of Macmillan," says Darling. "He found the ‘sermon on the mount’ by Mrs Thatcher appalling. It went against the grain of everything he believed in."
So why did his only son - Darling has three sisters - end up as not just an active member of the Labour party, but, in the words of George Galloway, "a bearded, Trotskyite, journal-selling activist"? The answer may well be to escape the pressures of having to live up to his brilliant father and distinguished forebears.
Darling says he was politicised during his time at Aberdeen University, although he didn’t join the Labour Party until 1977. "The oil boom was coming to Aberdeen when I was at university," he says. "House prices went up, money was coming in, and the area changed from being predominantly rural to being an oil capital."
Wasn’t the oil good for Aberdeen and good for Scotland, then? "I’m not against the oil," he says. "But it brought profound changes."
He joined the Labour Party because "it best represented what I thought". But at the same time he admits to having been deeply disillusioned with the Labour government of the mid-1970s. "We were disappointed with what it had done, or not done. It was the last throes of trying to run things centrally. The people losing out were the people Labour had set out to represent in the first place."
If this analysis sounds spookily familiar, Darling is oblivious. "As far as I know, I have never been a Trotskyite," he continues. "Yes, I was on the left of the Labour Party. Our problem was that, having gone through the disappointments of the 1970s Labour government, the Labour Party went out to lunch. It talked to itself. When I look back, I see it as an interesting conversation we had with a very small number of people. Come 1993, when you knocked on people’s doors they looked at the ground when you asked them if they would support you. No one was interested in us and no one was talking to us. I’ve changed since then. I’ve grown up."
As a result of his father’s job, Darling had a peripatetic childhood, attending seven different primary schools. By the time he reached secondary school age, the family had settled back in Edinburgh and he was sent to Loretto, where he boarded. "Everyone boarded in those days," he says. "They hadn’t invented women or day boys."
But it was not a happy experience. "I didn’t enjoy it," he says. "It was the late 1960s, and everybody else was enjoying flower power. We were doing singing practice between 7pm and 9pm on a Saturday. We still went for runs in the morning. The door shut behind you and that was it, you weren’t allowed out. I just didn’t enjoy it and I don’t think it enjoyed me either."
He was not, however, a natural rebel - unlike Tony Blair, who was at Fettes at the same time. The two men are the same age and may very well have encountered each other on the rugby pitch. They share mutual friends from their school days but have no recollection of meeting.
Darling, according to one of his former teachers, was "a rather quiet, dignified sort of a boy". "I was a quiet, reserved boy," Darling agrees. "I don’t blame anyone for the fact that I didn’t enjoy school, and I’m not sure that if I had gone to another school, one where you went home at night, that I would have been any happier."
Oddly, he seems to have relished the rootlessness of his early days. "I enjoyed my primary education," he says. "I don’t mind being dumped in a new environment." This ability to integrate and adapt to new territories, and to endure unpleasant ones with fortitude and dignity, has been something of a boon in his political career. Darling has a reputation as the minister most likely to shut down bad news stories. He can walk into a department as warring and hopelessly divided as the Balkans - social security, after Harriet Harman and Frank Field; transport, after Stephen Byers; Scotland, after Helen Liddell - and bring a degree of equanimity and harmony. He is the Natracalm of the cabinet. As a result, he has been handed more poisoned chalices than Lucretia Borgia’s husbands. Such is his reputation as a safe pair of hands, you suspect that if Blair could clone him, he would. As it is, he has given Darling two jobs - and already relations between the Scottish Executive and Westminster are much improved.
"I like it," he says. "What is good about these jobs is that you have a hell of a lot of room for making changes. Social security was burning rubble and it needed sorting. Four years on, the department of work and pensions - as it is now called - is a much better organisation, in terms of what it is doing for people. Transport is going to take a bit longer to sort."
How confident is he that he can sort it? "We can get it on the right tracks. Transport takes a long, long time. The agreement for the M6 toll road, which I’ve just opened, was actually signed in 1992, but it was first mooted by the Labour government of the 1970s. Barbara Castle is the only transport secretary who lived long enough to see her policies come to fruition."
He uses public transport regularly - "I did 700 miles on the train last week" - and it is amazing that he is not nursing a broken limb or fractured skull, such is the level of commuter dissatisfaction. "Most people are very polite," he says. He drives a people carrier, though not on the school run. "My children walk to school," he says. In fact, one of the few occasions when Darling has been known to lose his cool was over allegations that he had moved house from Edinburgh’s Stockbridge to Morningside in order that his children Calum, 15, and Anna, 12, would be in the catchment area for a leading state school.
He is highly protective of his family and his private life. He is married to the journalist Maggie Vaughan and he had a wobbly moment round about the time of the millennium, when he mused on the possibility of giving up politics for the sake of his family, la Alan Millburn, the former health secretary. "There are times when I think that all I’ve got is access. I don’t see them during the week; I’m never there," he said poignantly.
These days he is more robust. "People say it’s a hard job, but we fight like hell to get it and every five years we ask people to re-elect us. A lot of people would like to be in the cabinet. I’ve been fortunate that, with the odd exception, there hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t wanted to go into work. There are days when things are really difficult, if not bad, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge of doing it. The last six years have gone very quickly."
His constituency of Edinburgh Central is set to disappear following Boundary Commission plans, and there is talk of him taking over Edinburgh Pentlands, the seat of Scotland’s Advocate General, Lynda Clark. He works on his red boxes until the wee hours, and is often up at 6am at the weekends. "Generally speaking, I don’t feel tired. I like looking at two or three things at the same time. Just now I have the huge problem of the railway finances, the airport white paper and a number of Scottish issues to attend to and, of course, the constituency stuff is always there. But I really believe a change is as good as a rest.
"I do still find it a wrench to go away every week. But this summer, for the first time, I actually stayed away from the office for three weeks, which I’ve never done before. I am ruthless about weekends. My family is important to me. Even so, there are bound to be sacrifices. My daughter once said to me, ‘Why don’t you make an appointment to see us?’"
Darling cut his political teeth on Lothian Regional Council, to which he was elected in 1982 and ended up as chairman of its transport committee. He entered parliament five years later, in the same batch of Scottish Labour MPs as Brian Wilson and Sam Galbraith. His election, he says, was a complete surprise. "Nobody really expected us to get in in 1987. I had a court case in Edinburgh lined up for the Monday morning after the election, but to my surprise I found myself in Westminster."
For somebody who has spent more than 20 years as a politician, and almost a third of that time in cabinet, his statement that "I had no desire to be a professional or active politician. It is just something that happened," sounds disingenuous. But it may account for his relatively low profile and aversion to limelight.
"You have to stand back. You have to make a point of socialising with normal people. The best way to keep your finger on the pulse is to speak to people who are not involved in politics," he says. "Their perception of how things are going is often very different from your own."
So how does he think the public perceives New Labour? His answer is breathtakingly disarming. "There are some people who have become disengaged from us. A lot of people who supported us are deeply unhappy about the war in Iraq. That is very difficult for us. You lose trust at your peril. People will forgive you for making a wrong call, for believing something they don’t believe. But they have to believe that you are acting from the best of motives; that you were honest about the thing. If you lose that, you are in real trouble. Of course, the whole question of Dr David Kelly’s death had quite a profound effect.
"What is difficult to disentangle are the reasons for disillusionment. People tend to have a variety of reasons. We certainly have to do a hell of a lot more, but there is still a very high base to build on. I think that in 2004 we have to sharpen up our act, we’ve got to show people that we have made changes and that we can do more. If we can do that, then I am optimistic about the election when it comes. But this past year has been difficult for us. Some things we couldn’t have done much about, some are self-inflicted. We just have to get on and deal with it."
He welcomes the appointment of Michael Howard as Tory leader. "For six years it has almost been a one-party state, and I think Michael Howard will change that. The question has been, ‘Could you not do better?’ Politics is about that, but it is also about asking, ‘If you can’t do better, who can?’ In some ways, I welcome the sharpening up of politics. Politics is about exercising choice."
It is difficult to imagine another member of the cabinet being so up-front about New Labour’s problems. Darling has always been close to Gordon Brown. When Jennifer Brown died, it was Darling who was entrusted with the sensitive task of doing the rounds of the daytime TV sofas to talk about the loss. The two men share the same frugal attitude. Darling has been spotted eating home-made sandwiches in the Strangers Cafeteria at Westminster, and his disapproval of his continental European counterparts’ fondness for two-hour lunches would certainly endear him to the Chancellor. Were Brown to become Prime Minister, it is an open secret that the highly numerate Darling would be his Chancellor. Does he think trust would be more easily restored with Brown at 10 Downing Street?
"Firstly, we’ve got a Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister seems to be carrying on," he says. "What is implicit behind your question is that it is Tony Blair, and if only it wasn’t Tony Blair everything would be fine. There is a lot of criticism of the government, which we collectively take the blame for. Iraq is a case in point. All of us around the cabinet table supported that policy.
"I always took the view that it would be a long, long process. You cannot go from a 25-year dictatorship to a modern democracy just like that. I don’t feel differently now, but it was a very difficult decision to take.
"It wasn’t a decision to make just like that. You could see the way things were going from nine months before, and all the time you were thinking, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ You thought about the alternatives. ‘Suppose we back down, what signal does that send?’ It was difficult, and all of us knew that the decision we took would be deeply controversial. If you get a million people marching in Trafalgar Square, it is something you think about. These issues are difficult. You worry about them a lot. You’re conscious that, whatever you do, you could be making the wrong judgement. But if I were to rewind the clock, would I do it differently? No, I wouldn’t."
From another minister this could sound like pig-headedness, but Darling lacks the ego of a natural politician. Unlike Blair, he has a reverse gear and can admit when he is wrong. He also has staying power. Once he has made up his mind about an issue, he will see it through. He is, literally, the one to keep his head when all around are losing theirs.
Darling is a technocrat and a bit of trainspotter. He is the antidote to spin. In political terms that may not make him very exciting, but it does make a refreshing change. What makes Darling tick? Who knows. But tick he certainly does; he’s as reliable as clockwork.