Balls love bombs the Lib Dems

Shadow chancellor says the Lib Dems should form a coalition with Labour before the next election.

Ever since the Lib Dems' humiliation over Europe, Labour has been reaching out to Nick Clegg's party. We heard Ed Miliband utter the immortal words "I agree with Nick", while, in an article for the New Statesman, ("Labour will make a big, open offer to the Lib Dems on Europe"), Douglas Alexander offered to work with the Lib Dems to try to get "a better outcome for Britain".

But the love bombing has entered a new phase this morning with Ed Balls's call for Clegg's MPs to form a coalition with Labour, not, as you might have assumed, after the next election, but now. In an interview with the Independent's Steve Richards and Andrew Grice, the shadow chancellor says: "I think it would be much better now and for the future of the country if they did. It would be in the national interest. I don't think they should wait until 2015." He maintains, lest there be any doubt, that Clegg's resignation would be a pre-condition ("I don't think it's possible for Nick Clegg to lead that move") but it's still a strikingly pluralist message from one of Labour's most tribalist figures.

He goes on:

Before or after the next election, if the parliamentary arithmetic throws up the need for a coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems, I would go into that with enthusiasm...I could serve in a Cabinet with Chris Huhne or Vince Cable tomorrow.

"They have got to decide whether they want to serve in a Lab-Lib Cabinet which is trying to protect the NHS, keep us a robust defender of the national interest in the EU and get unemployment down, or whether they are willing to go along with what they now find themselves bound into.

With intermittent rumours of Vince Cable's resignation, the shadow chancellor clearly felt that now was the time to make an intervention.

The problem for Labour, however, is that the coalition is entering 2012 in better health than many expected. It has, for instance, just reached agreement with most trade unions on the biggest reforms to public sector pensions for decades, continuing evidence of the government's general unity. What's more, the worse the economy gets, the stronger Clegg's argument for the coalition will seem. The original aim of eliminating the structural deficit in one parliament has gone but the shared determination to keep Britain out of "the danger zone" (and preserve our triple A credit rating) remains.

Clegg's own party, much to the disappointment of us hacks, remains surprisingly united. Not one MP has defected and the vitriol felt towards Labour (some will never forgive the party for Iraq, top-up fees and detention without trial) provides a continuing point of unity.

But with the party still flatlining around 10 per cent in the polls, unity could fray as the election draws closer. Most psephologists argue that only a change of leader could revive the Lib Dems' fortunes. And Balls is positioning Labour to take full advantage of these tensions.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.