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Labour's Ed Balls "sabotaged" coalition talks says Laws

Ruth Bradley
BBC Somerset's politics reporter

David Laws
The Yeovil MP lasted just 17 days in government.

When I offer to interview David Laws in the crisp November sunshine on the church green in Yeovil, he declines.

This is top secret material we are discussing, three days before his book is due to be added to the likes of Blair and Mandelson's memoirs on shop shelves.

So he finishes off his lunch of crisps and chocolate brownie at his desk, and we sit down in his office to talk.

Laws was one of four top Liberal Democrats who went back and forth between the Conservatives and Labour in the days after the general election, negotiating who they might be able to come to an arrangement with.

I have read the book, called '22 Days in May', which covers the first days after the election, and want to get straight to the juicy bits.

Balls "sabotage"

The first half of the book deals with the five days of negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and Labour and the Conservatives. But were Labour ever serious about a coalition?

"Gordon Brown himself - after he'd lost the election - was quite serious about seeing whether he could stay in power by doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats," Laws tells me.

"Our reading was that Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman were really not that interested in the negotiations. I think Andrew Adonis and Peter Mandelson were more serious...but we never really got any serious proposals from Labour on economic policy."

I want to know more. In the book he talks about "a deadly intervention" by Ed Balls, "a calculated wrecking device".

"I think certainly Ed Balls said a number of things during the talks that I judged were meant to sabotage the negotiations."

Laws thinks by failing to agree on economic proposals and throwing a spanner in the works of voting reform discussions, Balls "questioned for me whether a Lib-Lab coalition could ever have worked".

In response, Ed Balls said: "We were prepared to compromise, but it soon became clear that the Lib Dems were not serious about a deal with Labour at all.

"It became increasingly clear the Lib Dems had already chosen to have a pact with the Tories but were using the talks with us to get more concessions out of the other side.

"And they had to give the impression that Labour wrecked the talks in order to justify to their own members why they'd thrown their lot in with the Tories."

22 Days in May
David Laws wrote the book over summer recess

To the treasury

The second half of the book describes Laws record-breaking career in the cabinet, notable for lasting just 17 days.

As chief secretary to the treasury he started the government's spending cuts programme. Not a popular job, but one he tells me he wanted.

"I thought it was just essential that we had someone in the treasury, it's the power house of government, at least as important as 10 Downing Street itself. It's where all the big decisions on spending and taxation are taken."

There are other revelations and quirky details thrown in to the book.

Before the election David Laws, as his party's education spokesman, had urged his party to drop its promise to scrap university tuition fees. A pledge which has come back to haunt the Liberal Democrats in the coalition.

And he tells me it was "stupid" of his cabinet predecessor Liam Byrne to leave him a now infamous note saying "There's no money left".

Comeback time?

The book ends 22 days after the general election with Laws' resignation from the government.

Allegations that he claimed expenses for rent paid to his long-term boyfriend are still being investigated by parliamentary officials, so Laws is scant on details in his closing pages.

But he does include a letter from David Cameron saying "I hope in time you'll be able to serve again".

So has that time now come, I ask him?

"No I don't think so. I know people love to speculate about these things. But I'm really enjoying the job I do as constituency MP...I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."





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