Ed Balls’ softer language about Nick Clegg might be an inevitable repositioning of the Labour party in the run-up to another hung parliament in 2015, or it might be the shadow chancellor trying to get ahead of the game after the end to his 2013 was rather bruising. But it is worth mulling the sorts of things that, aside from personalities, the two parties could struggle with.
One is the language that those at the top have used about Labour wrecking the recovery. At the 2013 Lib Dem autumn conference, Nick Clegg said:
‘Labour would wreck the recovery. The Conservatives would give us the wrong kind of recovery.’
Some Labour figures such as Lord Adonis felt this was unfair on Labour: wrecking the recovery is far worse than swerving off balance, surely? But this sort of language is easily forgiven when government looms: just remember the awkward jokes in the Rose Garden in 2010 about comments David Cameron had made about Nick Clegg.
However, what might be more interesting is how Labour squares its own use in opposition of Lib Dem broken promises with the likelihood of pledges that it is making now actually making it into government policy. Ed Miliband set the autumn weather with his energy price freeze pledge, and spent the months after his conference speech standing next to large ice cubes that symbolised the promise. Cleverly, though, they didn’t have a specific commitment written on them, which, as we all know, is the only wise thing to do after the last time someone signed a bit of paper with a promise on it:
Whenever Harriet Harman faces Nick Clegg in the Chamber, she takes great pleasure in reminding him of his broken promises. Today at Business Questions, Angela Eagle used Boris Johnson’s condom joke to rib Clegg about his broken promises, saying:
‘I would like to disagree with the Mayor of London, who this week called the Deputy Prime Minister a “prophylactic protection device”. Now I know I am not the world’s greatest expert in this area, but I thought you were supposed to be able to trust contraception.’
But if Labour finds itself in Coalition with the Lib Dems, then it will face the task of trying to freeze energy prices when the Lib Dems have been as clear as crystal that they think this a dreadful policy that would damage investment in the energy sector. Though party sources aren’t keen to say they’d definitely block it, muttering about the danger of setting out red lines, presumably if they, like the Tories, are sincerely worried about the impact that forcing companies to freeze their prices would have, they would block it in government. And if that happened, Ed Miliband would find his ice cubes looking a little less sharp.
This is all hypothetical, of course, but one of the features of the next 17 months of general election campaigning will be these questions about what policies each party would make a red line. Would the price freeze be one for Labour?