Wondering what the new year might have in store? 'IoS' writers offer a few predictions
Are house prices going to collapse?

Unlikely. They are expected to continue to rise at a steady pace. The Council of Mortgage Lenders anticipates house prices rising across the country by 5 to 6 per cent. The Halifax, the UK's largest mortgage lender, is expected to predict this week a rise of between 4 and 5 per cent in 1998. House prices rose on average around 6 per cent in 1997, a much slower rate than most of the media and estate agents would have us believe. In London, where prices have risen much faster than elsewhere, stabilisation is likely. Most pundits are decrying the idea of a return to the boom- and-bust situation of the late Eighties and are expecting steady, sustainable growth in property prices until at least the millennium.

Will Tony Blair make a good figurehead/ fixer for the European Union while the UK takes the chair over the next six months?

It is no easy thing to take over the helm while your chief engineer in the bowels of the ship is setting the course. Chancellor Brown's pre-emptive strike on the euro has left the Prime Minister looking decidedly on the fringe, despite all his protestations that "the image of an isolated Britain is entirely false". The fudge over the UK's place on Euro-X, the committee that oversees the introduction of a single European currency, convinces few. The core EU countries will decide among themselves how to proceed with the euro, leaving Britain on the margins of the continent's biggest ever economic development. Mr Blair will be given the diplomatically challenging but less important role of widening EU membership, and ensuring that the importunate Turks are kept outside the pale. This could be the one and only time he takes the presidential chair in Europe.

What does the future hold for Harriet Harman, the beleaguered Secretary of State for Social Security?

1998 will be make or break year for Ms Harman. The conventional wisdom is that she will go, to be replaced by her more radical (i.e. right-wing) deputy, Frank Field. But there are good reasons to doubt this assumption. Ms Harman is there because she put in some hard work as a shadow employment and treasurer minister. She took a lot of the flak over the children-to- direct-grant- schools issue that might otherwise have hit the equally culpable Mr Blair. She has the discreet support of king-maker Gordon Brown. And even if she made a hash of it on the Today programme, she defended the official line - unlike David Blunkett. Fifth. Where else would you put her?

And what about Peter Mandelson, the Minister without Portfolio?

Mandy will survive and prosper, winning a place in the Cabinet when his "boss", David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, finally succumbs to metal fatigue - from the knife in his back. The Minister without Portfolio is playing a high-stakes game, however, and his long-term future is not such a secure bet. He has made so many enemies in the upper reaches of government that they will wait until he overreaches himself and then move in for the kill.

What will William Hague's Shadow Cabinet look like after his long-awaited spring reshuffle?

With only 164 members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party in the Commons, the Tory leader has limited room for manoeuvre. He needs 44 MPs to fill his front bench, and once you exclude those who are too old, too young, too ill, too drunk, too mad - or too sane - to want to do it, there isn't much talent left. Christopher Soames, witty ex-food minister and a walking example of an English trencherman, could make a welcome comeback, as could Ann Widdecombe, tormentor of Michael Howard and the most unlikely woman star of 1998. Then there is the question of whether to bring back the former Foreign Office minister David Davis, who is rather enjoying his spell as chairman of the powerful all-party Public Accounts Committee. Now that she is back in the Commons in place of Piers Merchant, Jacqui Lait (a whip in the last government) would be a useful addition; so, too, newcomer Theresa May, a comprehensive schoolgirl who made it to Oxford and is turning heads (politically speaking) at Westminster. Watch out for Mr Howard's end, and the departure of Stephen Dorrell.

Will the IRA ceasefire hold?

Probably. There are no guarantees of this and there will undoubtedly be tense times ahead with the possibility of violence from fringe republicans and loyalists, together with marching-season controversies. But only a disorganised handful broke away from the IRA and Sinn Fein in 1997. While the republicans have not renounced violence their general mood seems very much one of giving politics a chance.

Will the Northern Ireland political talks reach agreement?

Probably not. Months of contacts produced no real chemistry among the parties and few signs of new trust or generosity. But they may produce enough of an outline of a reasonable settlement for London and Dublin to step in and add the finishing touches.

Will interest rates rise?

Probably. City economists are predicting an increase of 0.25 per cent in the base lending rate, the benchmark interest rate set by the Bank of England, to a peak of 7.5 per cent from the current 7.25 per cent. The hike could come as early as February. The good news is the bank is expected to then hold the cost of borrowing steady for the rest of the year before pulling rates down again in 1999.

Will there be a UK superbank?

The Continent is witnessing a frenzy of mergers between banks but regulators here will probably put the dampers on any marriage plans between British banks. That is because the traditional high street banks still have the lion's share of business customers and any alliance would be likely to create a monopoly in this lucrative part of the banking business. Rumours that NatWest and Barclays are planning to join forces have been staunchly denied by NatWest. The only chance of a successful merger would be in the retail-customer area where, especially since the demutualisation of building societies, competition is fierce enough to satisfy the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. One possible predator is the Halifax, which is sitting on a large cash pile and may just be shopping around for another smaller bank to buy.

Will Louise Woodward come home?

Almost certainly, although probably not until much later in the year. The highest court in Massachusetts - the Supreme Judicial Court made up of seven judges - will begin hearing the various appeals in March, but a final decision may take until Setember. The prosecution is appealing against the decisions of Judge Hiller Zobel in November, when he reduced her original jury sentence of murder in the second degree - carrying a mandatory life sentence with the possibility of parole after 15 years - to manslaughter, and let her go free on the 279 days she had already served. The defence will appeal even the manslaughter conviction to try to have Ms Woodward's name cleared entirely. The likelihood is that neither side will prevail. If that is the result, and Judge Zobel's rulings are upheld, Louise Woodward will still have manslaughter on her CV. But her passport will be returned to her and she will be free to come home.

Will President Clinton drop his pants in court?

Paula Jones appears determined to pursue her sexual harassment suit against the President to the bitter end. The outcome of the court case, due to be heard in May, will hang on whether she can prove her contention that the commander-in-chief's erect member is five inches long and bends off at an unusual angle. It is highly unlikely, however, that the President will be ordered to disrobe in the presence of the jury. The best we can hope for is a court-ordered medical examination in private followed by an anatomically vivid doctor's report.

What will be the next big health scare?

Let's distinguish real scares from attacks of nerves. The latter are two-a-penny - from phthalates in baby milk and cancer-causing head-lice shampoo to blood-clot-forming contraceptive pills. The next real scare will be flu. The virus is constantly mutating, and a large mutation, such as the one that has come to light in Hong Kong, would cause a global pandemic. The last flu pandemic occurred in 1968 and virologists are agreed the next is overdue.

Will hospital waiting lists fall?


Will the world's first xenotransplant (animal to human transplant) be performed?

If it happens anywhere, it is likely to happen at Papworth Hospital, near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. The hospital has close links with Imutran, the company that has bred a herd of genetically engineered pigs to overcome the problem of rejection. Its hopes of achieving an early breakthrough were dashed when the government-appointed Kennedy committee ruled earlier this year that no animal transplant should go ahead until further research into the risk of transmission of animal viruses has been completed. But the company remains confident it is on the right track.

Will we be rushing out to buy a weirdly shaped new TV set?

No, not quite, but the much-hyped digital revolution should begin in earnest in the autumn with the launch of digital terrestrial television (DTT) if the consortium BDB (British Digital Broadcasting) can meet its stated start date. To access its multi-channel package you'll need a chocolate-box-sized decoder costing around pounds 200 and to take out a monthly subscription.

Will Damon Hill win a grand prix?

After taking the world title in 1996, Hill's switch to Arrows, one of the lesser Formula One teams, put him at the back of the field for much of 1997. But he did manage one second-place, and now he has moved on again - to the much more competitive Jordan team. Anyone can win a grand prix given the right amount of luck, so, yes, Damon will probably be back on the podium. Certainly he has a fighting chance of regaining the world title.

Will Channel 5 get more than five viewers?

All right, so Britain's fifth free terrestrial service got off to a fairly pathetic start last Easter, but it is slowly expanding its transmission reach and improving its lacklustre programming schedule. It should also start to serve up some decent films as acquisition deals signed with major Hollywood movie studios finally bear fruit.

Will Kirsty Young stick with Channel 5 News?

Don't bank on it. The roving anchorwoman, surely the brightest new media star born in 1997, is bound to receive lots of tempting offers from rival networks keen to inject some sex appeal into their factual programmes. Channel 5 will have to work hard to keep her.

Will Tony Blair keep the media on his side?

Probably, if he continues to pander to press barons and does nothing to block the expansion of their empires. He'll also have to watch he doesn't alienate Rupert Murdoch on Europe. The Dirty Digger is determined to stop the EU regulating media across the continent.

How serious is the threat of a meteor devastating the Earth?

Meteorites hit the Earth all the time: the variation is in size. A biggish one (50 tonnes or more) came down somewhere in Greenland in December - its impact registered on seismographs. About two that size land per century. However, there is a real chance that some cosmic debris large enough to cause problems could hit the Earth, raising enough dust to cause a new ice age. Nobody can really estimate the chances, except to say that the last time was 65 million years ago, when a chunk more than 50 kilometres across hit the Gulf of Mexico. Adieu dinosaurs. Since then nothing comparable has come our way.

Is an intelligence gene going to be discovered?

No, and it never will be. No single gene controls intelligence: an interesting study this year showed that in the "nature vs nurture" debate, both sides are right - in roughly equal proportions.

How will El Nino affect British weather forecasters?

It is generally agreed that no one has any clear idea what will be the effect on our weather of the mass of warm water in the Pacific known as El Nino. All that is certain is that any extreme weather event, whether it is snow in June or a February heatwave, will be blamed on El Nino. The probable effect will be to make our forecasters even more smug when they get things wrong.

Is the Internet going to bring about global commerce, the collapse of governments, and the arrival of world peace?

Commerce will grow, slowly, but people are still rightly wary of the net. The only governments it might bring down are fascist ones undermined by freedom fighters using it to get their message out. As for world peace, have you seen how angry people on the net get about everything? Don't hold your breath.

So are we all going to be singletons spurning family life for a glittering career?

Er, not quite. As abortions rose following the 1995 pill scare, so did conceptions. Experts think we are going to see a rise in birthrate as we did in the 1970s. If so we'll have to rethink housing projections for the next century.

But we're all going to be on our own?

Not at all. The divorce numbers have fallen for the last three years. Predictions are they'll fall again. Of course, marriage figures have fallen as well.

What's going to happen to those who are on their own?

The most important thing is Harriet Harman's new deal for lone parents, which starts in April. It was brought forward - it was originally meant to start in October. Not so popular, the benefit cuts on lone parents also kick in from April.

What about the other caring services?

It's the NHS's 50th anniversary in 1998 - look out for much musing on the state of the welfare state. A White Paper will look at care in the community in the first half of the year, and the report into Ashworth Special Hospitals, due again early 1998, is likely to have far-reaching effects on how we treat mentally-ill offenders.

Princess Diana's death was said to have reduced admissions to psychiatric clinics for depression and anxiety. Whether this will continue to be the case remains to be seen - indications are that while it may have had some effects for a couple of months it is wearing off.

Are England going to win the World Cup?

They only ever win it under a Labour government, so maybe this is the year to lay the ghosts of 1966 to rest. During the qualifying campaign England showed evidence of the team spirit that will be vital in a long tournament played away from home. Glenn Hoddle has emerged as a sophisticated coach whose teams play patient, disciplined football, but he'll pray for the continued form and fitness of his truly world-class players, Seaman, Campbell and Gascoigne - not to mention the return of Alan Shearer, whose goals could be the final, winning factor.

Will Manchester United win the European Cup?

The bookmakers think so, particularly since Santa brought Alex Ferguson a quarter-final draw against Monaco, with the second leg at Old Trafford. United remain favourites to realise Ferguson's one burning ambition. This is the 30th anniversary of Sir Matt Busby's famous victory, and disappointment would be hard to take. Ferguson's only comfort might be that he has created a young team including talents such as Giggs, Scholes and Beckham, who have yet to reach their peak, and they will surely lift the trophy some time soon.

Will Myra Hindley be released from jail?

Almost certainly not. No Home Secretary would risk the public wrath of such an unpopular move, although Jack Straw has said that she could be released if she makes "exceptional progress" - but realistically she has no chance.

Will there be more crime in 1998?

Officially yes. New, more accurate methods of recording offences, in which each offence is noted separately, will result in a huge surge in the number of crimes noted. But the real number will probably continue to nudge down as the police continue to concentrate on burglary and car crime, at the expense of violent offences.

What are going to be the big changes in drug trends?

An increase in heroin consumption is expected, and the popularity of cocaine among the middle classes will continue to rise. Ecstasy will drop in popularity further while DIY cannabis and so called "herbal highs" will take off. Expect record drugs seizures.

Will all police officers be armed?

There will probably be more crimes involving firearms, despite the guns ban, leading to calls for greater protection for the police. But they are likely to adopt more hi-tech weapons, such as CS gas. While there will probably be a small rise in the number of specialist armed-response teams, there is no support among police chiefs for gun-toting bobbies.

Will the prison population continue to rise?

The number of people jailed will break all records, as tougher sentencing regimes kick in. But as new prisons are opened the threat of overcrowding and riots should recede.

What are going to be the big films?

A clutch of eagerly awaited movies has just opened in the States and will arrive here in the next few months. The $200m-plus Titanic gives our own Kate Winslet the chance of an Oscar, with a rival claim coming from Helena Bonham Carter for The Wings of the Dove, opening here this week. Quentin Tarantino is back with Jackie Brown, his first film since Pulp Fiction, and there's Steven Spielberg's slavery epic, Amistad. Critical plaudits are likely to accompany The Ice Storm, a Nixon-era family saga directed by Ang Lee, his first film since Sense and Sensibility. Then there's Eyes Wide Shut, the latest Stanley Kubrick, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and still shooting after more than a year, and the film of Primary Colors, the US bestseller, starring Emma Thompson. See David Thomson, Sunday Review, page 14

And what's going to be big on TV?

The next big classic drama arrives in March when the BBC brings us Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, starring Paul McGann and Anna Friel. Later in the year comes Vanity Fair. Comeback of the year sees Michael Parkinson reinstated as the thinking-man-and-woman's chat-show host. Interviewees lined up include Elton John, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Phil Collins, Sir David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley and Helen Mirren.

Other cultural highlights?

Big exhibition of Pierre Bonnard at the Tate Gallery, opening in February. In the same month there is Francis Bacon at the Hayward Gallery, along with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. "Picasso: The Ceramacist" is at the Royal Academy in September, with the 100th anniversary of the death of Aubrey Beardsley being marked the following month by an exhibition at the V&A. The exiled Royal Opera House's highlight looks like being their April production at the Royal Festival Hall of Wagner's Parsifal with Placido Domingo. Elton John and Billy Joel team up to play Glasgow, Manchester and Wembley in early June.

Will the Spice Girls still be together in 12 months' time?

A Take That-style split may appear to loom for the Spices, but their Christmas No 1 increases their shelf-life significantly. The girls - whose first British tour takes place in April - will milk the Spice phenomenon for as long as they can, while Oasis will be milking their album Be Here Now for singles while they take a break from recording.