The Labour Party is bracing itself for a "bloody nose" in next month's European Parliament and local authority elections, senior figures admitted yesterday.
Labour officials said the party is on a hiding to nothing because of a "double whammy" – the electoral arithmetic and an inevitable anti-government protest vote in the recession.
A third problem has been added to the mix in recent days – a surprise outbreak of Labour in-fighting and speculation about whether Gordon Brown might be ousted as leader before the general election. Brown allies were braced for a "wobble" when the 4 June results are known but were not ready for one four weeks before polling day.
They are frustrated by the panic in the ranks of Labour backbenchers, who last week forced the Prime Minister to water down his plans to reform MPs' expenses and then inflicted his first Commons defeat, over residence rights for Gurkha veterans.
Things went from bad to worse at the weekend. Attempts to blame "headless chickens" in the Parliamentary Labour Party were undermined when the cabinet minister Hazel Blears broke ranks, accusing the Government of "lamentable" communications and mocking Mr Brown's YouTube video on MPs' expenses. The fall-out from her newspaper article filled the news vacuum over what Downing Street had hoped would be a quiet Bank Holiday weekend. The fear among Brown allies is that the early outbreak of "summer madness" may damage Labour's election prospects even further, as voters turn away from a Government that seems more interested in fighting its internal battles than the recession.
One Labour source told The Independent yesterday: "These will be the most difficult elections for us since 1993. They will be exceptionally challenging."
It will be the first time since 1993 that the English county councils, traditionally a Tory stronghold, have held elections without a general election taking place on the same day. The 1997, 2001 and 2005 county elections saw the turnout increased by a general election, boosting Labour's prospects. Without that cushion, Labour is bound to suffer heavy losses. All parties lower expectations ahead of mid-term elections, but even the other parties admit Labour is bound to struggle this time.
Although Labour will not predict the results, it would be perfectly possible for the party to finish an embarrassing third behind the Tories and Liberal Democrats in the town hall poll. In last year's local elections, the Tories won 44 per cent of the votes, the Liberal Democrats 25 per cent and Labour 24 per cent.
Labour faces a similarly high hurdle in the Euro elections. In 2004, it came second behind the Tories but an experiment with all-postal voting in some regions boosted the overall turnout from 24 per cent in 1999 to 38 per cent.
The big unknown in the Euro poll will be what happens to the "Ukip vote". The UK Independence Party, which campaigns for Britain to withdraw from the European Union, was the surprise package five years ago, winning 16 per cent of the votes and beating the Liberal Democrats into fourth place.
Its performance was enhanced by one of its candidates, the TV presenter and former Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk. He has since departed and the party's fortunes appear to have waned. But it cannot be discounted since it is bound to do better in a European than a general election.
The fourth of June will also be a test for David Cameron, who will want to see signs that his party is winning support and not just profiting from Labour's unpopularity. Shadow Cabinet members have been told to spend three days a week campaigning.
"We will campaign on schools, hospitals and the economy," said Eric Pickles, the Tory chairman. He warned that Labour plans to attack "Tory cuts" in local services would backfire, since a public spending squeeze was now planned by the Government.
For the Liberal Democrats, the elections offer a rare media platform. They will be keen to limit any Tory advance in the South-west, a key battleground between the two opposition parties at the general election, while making some inroads in Labour's Northern heartlands.
Party platforms on Europe
Labour: Defends stance of "pro-EU realism". Argues that there is no need for referendum on EU's Treaty of Lisbon as it will simply streamline decision-making. Will warn that Tories would leave Britain isolated.
Conservatives: Want referendum on Lisbon Treaty and to pull Britain out of EU's social chapter of workers' rights. Will withdraw MEPs from mainstream European People's Party to form more sceptical centre-right breakaway.
Liberal Democrats: Pro-Europe, but keen to stress they are also pro-reform in Europe. Acknowledge need for close co- operation with EU partners in recession and issues such as climate change.
UKIP: Wants Britain to leave the EU, and campaigns for an in/out referendum. Performs best in Euro elections, winning 16 per cent of vote last time.
Libertas.eu: Pan-European party for "new, democratic open EU" making debut in a UK election. Wants Lisbon Treaty referendum.
BNP: Hoping to land first seats in nationwide election. Anti-immigration party campaigning on "British jobs for British workers".
Green: Hoping to halt BNP advance in North-west. Campaigning for "green jobs" push to lead Britain out of recession.