This is a coalition without courage

Forget the double dip: ministers say we can now go faster on the M25 and don't have to recycle as mu

So here it is, then, the legacy of the Coalition taking shape. 80mph motorways, weekly bin collections, 5p plastic bags and making it easier to sack people.

Here is a Government acting like a giant mimsying parish council tinkering at the edges while everything else falls apart. Forget the double dip, our whole nation descending like a spittle-soaked nacho being plunged into an over-ripe bowl of taramasalata; we can go a bit faster on the M25! We can throw away as much as we like! We can pretend to care about the environment! We can get rid of more staff without worrying about their pesky so-called rights!

Neeyow! Stick two fingers up to the so-called speed cameras brigade daring to stop 'otherwise-law-abiding' motorists and put your foot down hard on the gas pedal. Here comes freedom! You might not have a job, but if you did have a job, you'd be able to drive a bit faster, if you could afford a car, which you can't, because there aren't any jobs. But suppose you did have a car: you could go more quickly in it. Doesn't that make you feel better about things?

As well as that, you can throw away as much as you like, because Eric Pickles has found £250million down the back of the settee to reward councils who reinstate weekly bin collections. Hurrah! Of course, you might find that cold comfort if you're not earning enough money to be able to afford anything - let alone to be able to afford to just chuck stuff away without recycling or composting - but suppose you did have money: you could waste more of it. Doesn't that make you feel better about things, either?

Forget your local library closing down. Forget the fact there are no jobs, there is no future, there is a whole generation scratching around for work that isn't there. Forget those hundreds of Navy folk heading for the Jobcentreplus; they'll have the consolation of knowing they can retrain as dustmen and women to fill the literally fives of vacancies that will spring up across the land when we enter the wonderful world of weekly collections. Let's have trained Navy personnel manning the dustcarts and launching wheelie bins as torpedoes as they roar around at 80mph twice a week; it's a perfect solution.

Of course, these are just amuse-bouches to whet our appetites as we await the big decisions at the Conservative Party conference, but they give an indication of what we can expect over the next three and a bit years as the Tories head towards glorious re-election. What we can expect is a mess. On the one hand: mess we inherited, tough decisions, privatise everything, sack everyone. On the other: weekly bin collections, driving a bit faster, possibly having to pay 5p for plastic bags.

A Government that wanted to make really tough decisions and leave a real legacy - as opposed to sacking loads of public sector workers they were going to sack anyway, but having the bonus of blaming the previous Government for the deficit in order to do so - would decrease the speed limit, and get even tougher on recycling targets for councils, in order to reduce emissions and stop waste. But we all know why that won't happen. It won't happen because the Coalition doesn't have any courage. All it has is an agenda to obliterate the state, while chucking a bone to its selfish heartland to ensure it gets served up a second term in office. The question is whether they're going to get away with it.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.