Happier times when coallition was a Rose Garden. Source: Getty
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Elections this May will punch a lot of coalition bruises

Europe is half of the problem. Council seats being contested were last filled in 2010, when support for Tories and Lib Dems was highest.

Elections to the European parliament on 22 May will be unusual to the extent that the run-up will include rather a lot of arguing about Europe. Naturally, Ukip wants to keep Brussels in the frame. Nigel Farage has made it his explicit ambition to cause an “earthquake” at Westminster by mobilising public euroscepticism behind his yellow-and-purple banner.

On this occasion – and in reversal of old reticence – the Lib Dems will also be running explicitly on their attitude to Europe, which is rather more enthusiastic than Ukip's. (The thinking behind this potentially hazardous gambit is the subject of my column in the magazine this week.)

Live TV debates between Farage and Nick Clegg will give the campaign more prominence than past MEP ballots. All of which means even less attention than usual is being paid to local council elections on the same day. But the interaction of the two votes will be interesting – and potentially problematic for the two coalition parties. If Ukip succeeds in mobilising a lot of well-motivated Brussels-bashers there is a good chance some of that Farageism will also be expressed as council losses for the Tories. 

That is why some Conservative associations, with the tacit support of MPs, are effectively campaigning for a split ticket. They know some of their members are determined to register a protest vote on the MEP ballot paper and will hear efforts to sell them Cameron’s EU policy as a provocation. So instead the message is: “by all means have your fun with Ukip in the euro election, as long as you stick with the Tories for the council poll.”

For the Lib Dems, there is another problem unrelated to Europe. The council seats up for grabs are the ones that were last filled in 2010, on the same day as the general election. That was a high tide of support for Clegg’s party. They are also largely metropolitan seats, including London boroughs, where the Lib Dem vote will have come disproportionately from those of the party’s supporters who once fancied it as a leftwing antidote to New Labour. They have abandoned Clegg in droves.

In other words, the council elections on 22nd May could represent a quite forensic probing of Lib Dem electoral weakness; a punch on the party’s most tender bruises. One senior figure in the party recently told me he could not imagine a worse combination than European elections on the same day as a contest to defend the 2010 council gains a year before the next general election. One reason for advertising a pro-EU position so vigorously in the campaign is that it at least provides a principled cover for the massacre. That is, Clegg can tell his demoralised troops that they took a beating for something in which they genuinely believe – which feels marginally better than being beaten up as David Cameron’s hapless lackeys.

Judging by recent precedent, yet more of Clegg’s councillors will be culled and, after some low-level grumbling, his party will carry on stoically towards the general election, like soldiers in the First World War marching stoically out of their trenches towards enemy machine guns. There is in the Lib Dem ranks now a kind of martyr’s pride at this capacity for rolling self-sacrifice in the name of coalition. As one Cleggite MP puts it: “It’s magnificent and ghastly at the same time.”

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear