New Year's resolutions are a silly old game, let's be honest, but it seems they may be all the rage in Westminster this January. Ed Balls is definitely giving them a good go: it looks like one the changes he's making for 2014 is to be nicer to the Liberal Democrats, along with trying to restrain his emotions during antiques programmes and his concerted effort to stop looking like a tomato with the eyes of Satan himself. (Two of those, I made up.)
Balls told the New Statesman this week that he'd recently ran into none other than Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg in 'the kind of place people pass in the House of Commons' (my guess: the toilets), and that their conversation was 'very friendly and warm'. Admittedly, the image I've put in your head of these two together at the parliamentary urinal colours the friendly warmth vibe a little, but the words themselves are pretty positive. Balls says that he understands Clegg's decision to go into government with the Conservatives; he has faith in Clegg's integrity, and, most importantly, he definitely doesn't rule out going into coalition with Clegg, should the electoral mathematics point in that direction after the 2015 election.
This unexpected outbreak of détente on the centre-left is a hell of a way to open the political year - it blows apart a series of assumptions on Labour's position, post-2015, and may end up altering the way both Labour and the Liberal Democrats behave in the coming weeks and months. Significantly, from a Labour perspective, it's indicative that senior figures in the party have recognised their failings last time they found themselves across the table from the Lib Dems. It's widely known that Labour went into their coalition negotiations in 2010 woefully unprepared and disunited on the idea of even coming to an arrangement with Clegg's party. The shadow Chancellor himself was a problem there, too, apparently behaving like a Balls in a china shop (sorry, shocking work, must try harder), and his comments this week show he's softening. It's the equivalent of a spouse standing outside the window with a boombox after an argument, talking about how they've changed.
Balls' comments also betray a certain nervousness in the Labour ranks. Up until now, the Labour line has been the swaggering confidence of, 'We don't need to talk about the day after the election, we're working for a majority.' Of course, the party still wants a majority. Labour will still behave as if they are on the verge of power. But, if they're not quite rolling out the carpet for coalition talks, then they're certainly putting down the underlay. Never mind that they have a decent poll lead, that the electoral system is rigged for their benefit, that the Conservatives will have to improve on their meagre 2010 vote share, nor that Electoral Calculus forecasts a Labour majority of 78 - they aren't convinced, and, like any good gambler, they're hedging their bets.
The more calculating part of the Balls brain, though, will have allocated another purpose to his comments to the New Statesman. His friendly little chat with the Deputy Prime Minister is now on the record; it's well-known and has been making news for a few days. Anyone who wants to can read about how Ed Balls, gentleman that he is, doesn't hold a grudge against Mr. Clegg - he just cares about the issues, and he thinks that 'these things [aren't] about personalities'. How noble of him, right? Well, not really, he's just behaving like a proper, rational adult - but still, that's rare at the top of politics. What we need to remember, however, is that Balls is a political animal. He knows he's vulnerable right now, or at least, more vulnerable than he'd like to be. He knows that David Cameron will be haranguing him from now up until the day of the election, and probably for a little while after that as well, if he's got the time to do so. If he's able to make it look like he's matey with Clegg, then any attacks that come from that corner will make the Lib Dem leader look a little slippery, and diminish him as a result. What Balls is looking for is the opportunity to either neutralise an enemy or to play the bigger man. The big thaw might not be quite as warm and fuzzy as he'd like you to think.
In the run-up to the general election, I'd say we're going to see a lot more of this kind of stuff - a wide-ranging sea of politicians falling over each other to try to sort of sound like they maybe might kind of agree with someone on the other side on a couple of things. Keep your eyes open for little worms of compliments being cast across the floor of the House by hopeful political fishermen - these are the new, uncertain times, where majorities don't come quite so easily, where alliances have to be forged, and where the party leaders are desperate for the former enemies to bite their hook first.Suggest a correction