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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.