Ed Balls
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has thrown a spanner into 2015 general election speculation by making it clear he could happily work with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

In an interview that raised eyebrows across Westminster, the notoriously combative Balls declared: "I can disagree with Nick Clegg on some of the things he did but I've no reason to doubt his integrity.

"I understand totally why [he] made the decision he made to go into coalition with the Conservatives at the time. I may not have liked it but I understood it," he said.

And asked directly about the prospect of a Lib-Lab coalition after the election, he said: "I think what you always have to do is deal with politics as you find it". It was not a matter of personalities, he added.

This is more than just stating the obvious – that politicians on all sides will have to deal with whatever outcome the electorate lands them with in May 2015. It represents what has instantly been interpreted as a careful repositioning.

And it comes hard on the heels of a series of remarks by Clegg on protecting the least well off, for example, that put him much more in tune with Labour than the Tories on the future direction of policy.

I may disagree with some of the things he has supported but I have no reason to say anything nasty about him as a person

Of the many reasons why the LibDems failed to go into coalition with Labour after the 2010 election, two stood out. One was Clegg's demand for the head of Ball's political hero, Gordon Brown, as the price of a deal.

But another was the sheer strength of animosity towards Clegg and his party from huge numbers of Labour MPs and supporters, including Balls.

And only last year, when asked about the possibility of working with the LibDem leader, the shadow chancellor said: "Clegg made his decisions and the way he's gone about his politics makes things very difficult."

Balls's language in his New Statesman interview could not be more different. He revealed that, just moments before, he had had a chat with Clegg in the Commons.

"We had a nice chat about how things were going. I think it was the first time I'd had a conversation with him for a really long time. I can say, with my hand on heart, the only conversation I've had with Nick Clegg in the last 18 months was very friendly and warm.."

It is clearly the case that no sensible politician rules anything out. It is also obvious that Clegg is manoeuvring himself into a position where he might be able to deal with either side after the election.

Until now much of the speculation over a possible deal between the LibDems and Labour, should it emerge as the largest party, has been on the basis that Clegg would have to go.

The only questions were whether the LibDems would be ready to ditch him in order to be in power again and, if not, whether Labour would be ready to call their bluff and attempt to rule as a minority government.

But, despite the widespread view that Clegg is a busted flush because of his support of some of the Tories' harshest policies, he is actually in a very strong position within his party as his performance at last autumn's party conference showed.

In fact, it is his possible successor and Labour favourite, Vince Cable, who now appears to be the weaker of the two.

What Balls is doing is recognising that internal LibDem shift and clearing the decks of any historical political or personal animosities to give Labour the widest possible bargaining position in the event of that hung parliament.