Europe wobbles…

Italy, Spain and Cyprus all strike fear into the hearts of economists.

The Eurozone is heating up again, as the realisation dawns that previous settlements were merely uneasy hiatuses.

The immediate problem is Cyprus, which finds itself on the verge of default due to contamination from Greece. The country, a small island nation in the Mediterranean, has close historical and financial links with crisis-stricken Athens, and was forced to seek aid from the EU last year. Last month, the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Filder received confirmation in Davos from Olli Rehn, the EU's economics commissioner, a rescue program for the country will require "substantially reducing government and bank debt" — in other words, a default.

Such a default will be problematic, because Cyprus, more so than most troubled Eurozone countries to date, operates as an off-shore banker for many of the world's super-rich — particularly, in this case, Russians. The country is likely to find itself stuck between two unpalatable options: either safeguarding its banking sector from losses by imposing huge burdens on its populace, or risking a run on the banks from overseas as foreign depositors try to get their money out.

There had been hope that the country may be able to get a bailout from the EU without causing too much damage to its domestic banking operation, but over the weekend, that became less likely. The SPD, the German opposition party, pushed for the country to be forced to consolidate its banks before any bailout would be agreed. According to Reuters, Merkel needs the support of the SPD to pass any bailout through the Bundestag (and of course, the EU needs the support of Germany before any bailout can go ahead) so this objection carries real weight.

The Cypriot problem is nasty, but largely internal; the country is too small to have any real contagion effects. The same cannot be said of Italy and Spain, both of which are sources of increased uncertainty.

In Italy, Silvio's back! The former prime minister — who, if he were anyone else, would surely be the "disgraced" former prime minister — is running for office on a platform of tax cuts (€4bn of them) over austerity. His coalition is in second place right now to the centre-left grouping, but its standing is improving — and the markets appear to be getting jumpy at that fact.

Berlusconi is being hampered by the fact that he no longer controls Italian media in the way he used to, but even so, a win for him is still alarmingly possible. (Regardless of the effect of deficit-funded tax-cuts on national economies, Berlusconi is unlikely to plough a viable economic course for Italy).

And in Spain, prime minister Mariano Rajoy has been accused of running an illegal slush fund. Yesterday afternoon, Rajoy issued a not-entirely-convincing rebuttal, telling a joint press conference with Angela Merkel that:

I repeat what I said Saturday: everything that has been said about me and my colleagues in the party is untrue, except for some things that have been published by some media outlets.

Merkel, "visibly upset", was also asked about the corruption allegations, and emphasised that "what is important is the relationship between the two governments".

Whatever happens to Rajoy, Berloscuni, and even Cyprus, the flurry of attention and fear generated by what ought to be business as usual for politics (except, maybe, the Cyprus problem) demonstrates how uneasy the situation in Europe remains. While we haven't heard a huge amount about the crisis recently, as the big minds in economics get distracted by talk of robots (not that the potential problems there aren't huge either), the situation is by no means fixed. The continent remains in much the same straits as Britain, but with the added straightjacket of a unified currency and intransigent Germany dampening hope.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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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.