Will Cameron's five nightmares come true?

Defeat in Eastleigh, a higher deficit, a triple-dip recession, poor local election results and the loss of Britain's AAA rating could prompt a new revolt by Tory MPs.

At the start of this month, the Evening Standard reported that Tory rebels had set David Cameron five challenges: victory in the Eastleigh by-election, a successful Budget, a return to economic growth, a strong performance in the county council elections and the retention of the UK's AAA credit rating. A few weeks on, what are the PM's chances of success looking like?

1. Eastleigh by-election: preparing for defeat

The Tories already appear resigned to defeat in Eastleigh, where the Lib Dems' local advantage - they hold all 36 council seats in the constituency - has given them the edge. Victory for "the yellow bastards" means it will be even harder for Cameron to argue that a Conservative majority is achievable in 2015. The party has included 20 Lib Dem MPs on its target list of 40 in the hope that they will prove easier to dislodge than their Labour counterparts, but Eastleigh suggests that Clegg's party will benefit from a significant incumbency advantage. The Lib Dems' plan to treat the general election as "57 by-elections" looks increasingly smart. 

2. The Budget: Osborne faces failure on the deficit

The pressure on George Osborne to deliver a "game changing" Budget has never been greater and will reach a new peak if the Tories lose in Eastleigh next Thursday. After growth of just 0.4 per cent since the Spending Review in October 2010, Conservative MPs are demanding shock-and-awe tax cuts. Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, has called for the abolition of Air Passenger Duty; others demand the suspension of capital gains tax and a reduction in corporation tax to an Irish-style level of 11 per cent.

But the problem for the Chancellor is that as Tory calls for action have grown, his room for manoeuvre has shrunk. After no growth in 2012, there's precious little spare money in the Treasury. When Osborne steps up to the despatch box on 20 March, he'll almost certainly be forced to announce that the deficit is expected to be higher this year than last.

Until now, even as he's repeatedly missed his borrowing targets, the Chancellor has at least been able to boast that the deficit has continued to fall each year. 'It's taking longer than we thought but we're still heading in the right direction' has been his mantra. But that's about to change. Even with the addition of the £2.3bn proceeds from the 4G spectrum auction, the OBR will likely forecast a deficit for 2013 in excess of the £121bn recorded in 2012. With just two months of the financial year remaining, borrowing is £5.3bn (5.8 per cent) higher than in the same period last year. Osborne, one Tory MP tells me, will have "the worst of both worlds": no growth and a rising deficit.

3. Triple-dip recession: still on the table

After the economy shrunk by 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2012, the UK is in danger of suffering its first-ever triple dip recession. And while most economists expect us to (just) avoid this fate (NIESR is forecasting growth of 0.2 per cent in the first quarter), last week's worse-than-expected retail figures, the weakest for three years, led to warnings that a triple-dip was still "on the table". Rob Wood, an economist at Berenberg Bank, said: "The underlying picture is that the economy is bouncing along the bottom, so weather disruptions can easily tip it into negative territory." 

The Office for National Statistics will publish its first estimate of Q1 GDP on 26 April, six days before the county council elections. 

4. County council elections: will the Tory vote hold up?

On paper, the county council elections should give Cameron the least cause for concern. As Tom Watson, Labour's campaign co-ordinator, told me yesterday: "It's shire elections in their heartlands. It's May 2014 that will be their big test." But with local Conservative associations reporting mass resignations over equal marriage and Ukip still polling strongly, the Tory vote could still take a battering. 

5AAA rating: increasingly at risk

The rising deficit means at least one of the big three credit rating agencies - Moody's, Fitch and Standard & Poor's - is likely to strip the UK of its AAA rating this year. All three have already put Britain on "negative outlook" after anaemic growth forced Osborne to borrow £212bn more than planned. 

The loss of our AAA rating would, as I've written before, be of little economic significance. The US and France have seen no significant rise in their borrowing costs since losing their AAA ratings and there's little reason to believe Britain would be any different. All the evidence we have suggests that the market is prepared to lend to countries that can borrow in their own currencies, such as the US, the UK and Japan, and that enjoy the benefits of an independent monetary policy, regardless of their credit ratings or their debt levels.

But for Osborne, the politics of losing AAA would be toxic. Both before and after entering the Treasury, he chose to make our credit rating the ultimate metric of economic stability. When Britain was first put on negative outlook by S&P in May 2009, Osborne declared:

It's now clear that Britain's economic reputation is on the line at the next general election, another reason for bringing the date forward and having that election now ... For the first time since these ratings began in 1978, the outlook for British debt has been downgraded from stable to negative.

And when the UK was taken off negative watch by S&P in October 2010, he boasted of "a big vote of confidence in the UK, and a vote of confidence in the coalition government's economic policies". By his own logic, then, the loss of AAA would amount to a vote of no confidence in his economic policy. 

For political purposes, Osborne used Britain's credit rating as a stick to beat Labour with. He can hardly complain if others now use this move against him. The hunter has become the hunted.

David Cameron holds a Q&A session with workers as he campaigns for the forthcoming by-election in Eastleigh. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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