Clegg's head remains the price of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition

Miliband confirms that he wouldn't form a coalition with Clegg. But could he work with Cable?

Nick Clegg's declaration this weekend that he would be prepared to form a coalition with Labour after the next election was significant because it was at odds with much of what he's previously said on the subject. In a speech in May 2011, for instance, Clegg rebuked those in party, most notably Vince Cable and Chris Huhne, who talk up the possibility of a future alliance with Labour. He said:

There are still those who dream of a so-called ‘progressive alliance’, forgetting that Labour had 13 years to make some moves in that direction and never quite seemed to get around to it until, in desperation, they tried to cling to power last year.

But asked by the People if he could do business with Ed Miliband, Clegg replied: "Yes. If the British people said that the only combination which could work would be those two parties, in the same way as after the last election the only combination which could work was Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it would be obvious that Liberal Democrats would need to do their duty."

Invited to return the compliment, Miliband, however, has declined. It was in an interview with the New Statesman in August 2010 that the Labour leader first indicated that Clegg's resignation would be a precondition of any deal with the Lib Dems, and nothing since has changed his mind. He told today's Independent that he would find it "difficult to work with" Clegg, an "accomplice" to the Tories. Though his language is more ambiguous than on other occasions, the message remains that Clegg's head is the price of any deal.

Since there is a good chance the next election will result in another hung parliament, Clegg and Miliband's comments are more significant than they may appear.  It is worth noting, for instance, that Miliband has never ruled out working with Vince Cable, who openly displayed his leadership ambitions this weekend. Ed Balls has gone further, declaring that he "could serve in a Cabinet with Chris Huhne or Vince Cable tomorrow". Should Cable lead the Lib Dems into the next election (with Clegg perhaps returning to Brussels to serve as the UK's EU commissioner), it would significantly increase Ed Miliband's chances of becoming prime minister.

Ed Miliband said he would find it "difficult to work with" Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.