NICK Clegg’s efforts to build bridges with Labour ahead of possible coalition negotiations have been dealt a blow, after shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that no-one in the party wants to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
The Deputy Prime Minister indicated in a radio interview earlier this week that he would be ready to take the Lib Dems into coalition with Labour, in what was widely seen as an effort to smooth the way for talks in the event of a hung parliament after next year’s general election.
His comments followed the apparent offer of an olive branch last month from Mr Balls, when he revealed he had had a “very friendly and warm” conversation with the Lib Dem leader and said he had “understood totally” Mr Clegg’s decision to form a Government with the Tories in 2010.
But in a new interview with Progress magazine, the shadow chancellor took a decidedly less amenable tone, insisting that he will not let the Lib Dems “off the hook” for their actions in Government.
‘Won’t let Lib Dems off the hook’
Although he acknowledged that Labour will have to “deal with the result that the electorate throw up” in the May 2015 poll, Mr Balls added: “None of us want to be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, partly because it’s hard to know what’s more unpopular at the moment - the Liberal Democrats or the idea of a coalition government.”
Speaking before the broadcast of Mr Clegg’s interview, Mr Balls was scathing about the Lib Dems’ record: “I look at what the Liberal Democrats have done the last two or three years - these guys have not restrained the Conservatives; they have in many ways amplified and encouraged the Conservatives in things that they’ve done.
“I’m afraid that the relish with which some of their spokespeople talk about some of the difficult decisions they’ve had to introduce, the relish with which they talk about the bedroom tax - I’m not going to let them off the hook.
“It’s one thing to break your promises in a manifesto to get into power, it’s another to do that on the backs of the poor and the most disadvantaged. That’s what they did and I don’t think people are going to forget that.”
Mr Balls suggested that his earlier comments may have been misinterpreted, telling Progress: “I think that what was described by some as a ‘rapprochement’ was my one and only conversation with Nick Clegg in the last 18 months. And it was brief, unexpected, unplanned, spontaneous, and unorthodox.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4, Mr Clegg said he believed Labour had “changed” since losing office in 2010 and was realising it might have to share power after the election. Lib Dems would make it a condition of a coalition with Labour that the new government would not “break the bank”, he said.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband responded dismissively, saying that he was fighting for an outright majority and did not believe that political parties should engage in discussions about possible future coalitions before the election has been held.
Mr Balls also rejected suggestions that a Labour administration would “lurch to a retro period of anti-business policy”, insisting that the party had shown its pro-business credentials by opposing Tory anti-Europeanism.
“The most pro-business thing about Labour at the moment is that we are the only pro-European party of government,” said Mr Balls. “What the Conservatives have done by putting party interest before national interest is deeply dangerous.
“Actually if you sat around with a group of businesspeople and ask ‘what are you most worried about?’, they’re worried about a Conservative Party allowing us to sleepwalk and drift away from Europe. It’s a massively dangerous proposition. Only Labour can save the country from that Conservative anti-Europeanism.”
Mr Balls restated his commitment to balance the current budget by the end of the next Parliament, as well as to match the coalition’s spending plans for 2015/16, keep the benefits cap and remove winter fuel allowance from the richest 5% of pensioners.
He acknowledged that some of these decisions had not been popular with his own party, but said: “If I don’t do some things which end up bringing some criticism then I’m not doing my job.”
But he said he would protect free bus travel for pensioners and would not means-test the free TV licence, arguing that the cost of doing so would make the potential savings “not worth the candle”.