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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Balls's candour

"I don't believe in a mea culpa strategy," Ed Balls said at the Indy's fringe and you knew he meant it.

Given the hero's welcome he received (it's not every fringe where a Shadow minister is greeted with whoops) and the huge queue to see him, he didn't need to say sorry to these particular Labour party members.

Of course, the Shadow Chancellor has been busy saying sorry for some time now for the lack of regulation of the City and for blunders like the 75p pension rise. 

But he's been very particular about the things he should and shouldn't apologise for. At the fringe with Steve Richards he made clear that he wouldn't give the Tories their perfect present for the next election.

"It's not right to describe this as a traditional boom-bust crisis... The idea that you can blame that on inflation or public spending profligacy in a traditional sense...it's just not true. The Conservatives would like nothing better than for me to say public spending caused the crisis. But it's not true."

Where he was perhaps more apologetic - and candid - than usual was on the long-standing allegations that he was part of a bullying culture that surrounded Gordon Brown and his henchmen in the Blair-Brown wars.

Thanks to Steve Richards' in-the-psychiatrists-chair approach, Balls gave us something close to an admission of guilt.

Richards asked: "Was there a machismo about the Brown entourage, which you describe as being very twentysomething, was there a kind of bullying swagger around as well?"

Mr Balls replied: "I think, yes a little bit."

He added: "But that's how it was. When I think back on it now, it's not the way I would like to conduct the relationships I have with people who work for me. I don't think it was particular to the Gordon Brown team. There was quite a lot of macho elements.

"If you think of the Big Four at the time, Tony Blair with Alastair Campbell around him, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Robin Cook. It was quite male. I think our politics has changed a great deal since then. Macho style behaviour is less acceptable today, whether you're talking about the staffroom or the workplace or in a political office. I think that's a really positive thing. But that wasn't really true of the culture of the mid-1990s."

When I broke the news of this to a senior figure in the party tonight, he said that he was delighted that at last Balls had come clean. It's obviously been seen as yet another issue that needed to be aired before he could move on.

Of course, the most interesting stuff in the fringe was the economics. And it sounds suspiciously like Balls has a Plan B (to coin a phrase) for Alistair Darling's plan to halve the deficit within four years.

A smart delegate (take a bow Jerome Wilson from Colchester CLP) asked him about the problems with any deadline-fixed strategy.

He asked: "Do you not think that setting a date on halving the deficit or removing the deficit by the end of a Parliament is arbitrary and a case of good politics overriding good economics? And that the deficit should more according to how much demand there is in the economy and how much support it needs overall?"

Balls' reply was fascinating: "In terms of the deficit reduction timetable, we legislated for that plan and I supported that plan. It's hard to work up legislation and not have a date. But of course you're right economically the date is less important than what happens to the underlying state of the economy.

"George Osborne is about to discover this. He had a very clear commitment to achieve a dramatic deficit reduction by 2015.  What he'll learn is to be a good chancellor you need a little more flexibility, a little bit more economics and a little bit less political certainty."

Richards then asked: "Your halving the deficit is flexible, it's not an arbitrary target you would meet? You suggest flexibility on this is a merit, so that is not set in stone either?

Mr Balls replied that he had always had doubts about the difficulty of the Darling plan but it had been on track until the Coalition pushed ahead with deeper cuts that choked off growth.

"To be entirely consistent I said that before the election, going back 3 years ago, I was worried that even the objective of halving the deficit in 4 years was very ambitious by the end of the Parliament. I think that you can say that if you look at the state of the economy and unemployment by election time, a growing economy, unemployment falling, you can say we were on track to meet that target....What's happened since is a tougher target, bigger tax rises early, bigger spending cuts earlier.

"Were we to have been in Government we would have been halving it in four years. I think we would have had a good chance of achieving that although the world economic situation is difficult now."

The implication was clear. Not only is George Osborne is danger of missing his target, so too is the Darling plan. It underlined the feeling that ever since he was appointed to the Shadow Chancellor post, Balls has been itching to rewrite the Darling plan (at his first presser he wanted 'flexibility', but was swiftly forced to sign up to the Darling proposal).

As the delegate implied, that flexibille approach may well be good economics. The question for Ed Balls is whether it can be good politics.

Perhaps more problematic will be his sheer confidence that Osborne's plan will fail. Tonight he was so sure it would that he even held out a hostage to fortune:

"If the Coalition were able to eliminate the deficit entirely in a Parliament, that would be a fabulous, amazing and staggering achievement which would change and transform the general election manifestos and prospects of all political parties."

Fabulous, amazing and staggering. All words I can see Osborne wishing to quote on 30-ft high Tory posters in 2015....

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