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.