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.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.