Shadow chancellor Ed Balls attempted to split the Westminster coalition yesterday, appealing to Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable to quit the government and join forces with Labour to implement an alternative plan for the economy.
Mr Balls said he would work with Mr Cable “today” to form a Plan B to stop the Conservative-led coalition’s cuts programme, but appeared to out any deal that would involve Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Mr Balls, in the clearest sign of an olive branch offered by Labour to the Lib Dems since the 2010 general election, said many in Mr Cable’s party wanted to “change course” and walk out on the “failed” coalition.
The shadow chancellor also said Mr Cable “should be listened to” on issues such as banking reform, the economy and calls for a “mansion tax” – a wealth tax on £2 million-plus properties.
Mr Balls said Mr Clegg was “much closer” to David Cameron than his Lib Dem colleagues, an apparent attempt to create a rift within the party in the run-up to the party conference season.
The move came after Labour leader Ed Miliband revealed last week that he had swapped text messages with Mr Cable, a former member of the Labour Party.
But the intervention by Mr Balls was attacked as “mischief- making” by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, who also described it as a “pretty crude attempt” to split the coalition.
Mr Cable also appeared to reject the attempt by Mr Balls to woo him, saying that “flattery does not necessarily deal satisfactorily with the issue”.
Mr Balls insisted he still wanted an outright win for Labour in 2015, but said that in the meantime, his party should be working with the Liberal Democrats to oppose the Conservatives.
He said: “I wish George Osborne would see Vince Cable as a man to do business with and listen to, rather than telling the newspapers he is putting his allies in [to the Business Department] to try and surround him and hold him back.
“Vince should be listened to on banking reform and on the economy. I could work with Vince. I would like the Liberal Democrats to say right now that this coalition has failed and we’re going to change course.
“I think that is true of many Liberal Democrats, but I don’t think that is true of Nick Clegg, whose instincts are clearly much closer to David Cameron and George Osborne.
“I am not thinking to myself, ‘I want a coalition for the future’. I want a Labour majority government elected in 2015.
“But right now, I want decent people who put the country first and are sensible in their thinking to come together and do the right thing and stop undermining the long-term future of our economy and businesses. I think Vince is one of those people. I could work with him today.”
Mr Cable defended his links with senior Labour figures such as Mr Miliband, but insisted he had “no ambitions” for the Liberal Democrat leadership and backed Mr Clegg.
Mr Cable said: “I’m not different in any way from Nick Clegg. I am happily part of his team. That is not changing. I am part of this coalition government and committed to working in it.
“But I do have perfectly businesslike, amicable relationships with members of the Labour Party and other parties. I see no problem in that – that is grown-up and sensible.
“I have no ambitions in that area. I have been leader of my party for a relatively short period of time. I have been there and done that and I am getting on with my job in government.”
Mr Cable said he was “not embarrassed to describe myself as someone on the centre left” and insisted that he believed Mr Clegg would also describe himself that way, dismissing the suggestion that the Lib Dem leader was closer to the Conservatives.
He said: “I have chemistry with lots of people in public life. I am very happy to talk to Ed; I talk to my Conservative colleagues in government in an equally businesslike way.”
Mr Cable went on to defend Mr Clegg’s decision to form a coalition with the Tories two years ago rather than Labour, and said the Deputy Prime Minister had “distinguished himself” by acting in Britain’s best interest.
He said: “We have a very good Deputy Prime Minister. I am very happy with Nick, he will continue in the job.”
Mr Balls also attacked Mr Cameron’s leadership, accusing him of “treating women badly”.
But Mr Rennie said: “The comments by Mr Balls should be seen as a pretty crude attempt to make mischief. Liberal Democrats are as suspicious of tribal Labour politics as they are of tribal Conservative politics.”