Ed Balls speaks at a press conference to launch Labour's NHS week in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Balls says Labour would speak to SNP - but rules out negotiations

Shadow chancellor says Leader of the House would "talk to all parties" but rejects negotiations on the Budget and defence. 

As the SNP published its manifesto in Edinburgh, Ed Balls was being interrogated about how Labour would handle the party if it held the balance of power in a hung parliament. Asked about the comments made yesterday by shadow leader of the Commons, Angela Eagle, who said that Labour would "speak to any party with representation" to try and pass a Queen's Speech, Balls sought to clarify rather than disown her remarks. "If you're the shadow leader of the House then in your job you talk every day to everybody," he said, speaking at the launch of Labour's NHS week in London. "You're talking, if you're Angela Eagle, to Tories, you'll have spent quite a lot of time in the last few months talking to the very small band of Ukip MPs as well." He latter added: "Of course in parliament it's the job of the Leader of the House to talk to all parties, that's what happens. William Hague and Angela Eagle have conversations to make sure that they organise the business of the House week-to-week." 

But Balls drew a firm distinction between these intermittent conversations and the negotiations that the Tories are claiming Labour would have to embark on with the SNP. "Is Labour going to start to form a coalition or to negotiate our Budget or our tax rates or the defence of our country with a party which seeks to break up the United Kingdom? The answer is unequivocally no," he said. He added: "The only reason you're asking this question, and the only reason it's on the agenda, is because David Cameron is desperately flailing around trying to divert attention from his failing election campaign and making allegation after allegation - the reality is you know and I know the SNP want a Tory government and the Tories want the SNP to do well."

The question is whether, if the SNP held the balance of power, Eagle and others would be forced to speak to them rather more than other parties. But Balls has today drawn a line the sand that Labour would find it hard to retreat from. As thing stands, it appears likely that the party would call the nationalists' bluff by tabling a left-leaning Queen's Speech and a Budget and daring them to vote them down. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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