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Editorial: A local election full of risks for Cameron

They'll probably win, but even with an overall majority in Thursday's local elections, the Conservative Party is set for a mauling

It is set to be a difficult week for the Prime Minister. There may be little doubt that the Conservatives will win the majority of the near-2,400 council seats up for grabs in Thursday’s local elections. But that alone will not be enough to take the heat off David Cameron. Even with an overall majority, his party is set for a mauling; and the usual clichés about mid-term blues are unlikely to calm the ire of his increasingly recalcitrant backbenchers.

In part, the Prime Minister’s difficulties are a simple matter of role-reversal. When this week’s councils were last put to the vote, four years ago, Mr Cameron was opposing a Gordon Brown-led government at its nadir. Now, he is at the head of a coalition imposing painful cuts and struggling to jump-start a relentlessly torpid economy. But all that could be rationalised. It is the spectacular rise of the UK Independence Party – fielding three times as many candidates as in 2009, and with hopes of much-improved success – that is the real headache.

As the Eastleigh by-election in February showed, Ukip’s growing popularity is not confined to abstract polling. By positioning itself as the tell-it-like-it-is, anti-politics party, and by focusing on key Conservative concerns from immigration to Europe to gay marriage, Ukip leapfrogged the Tories to take second place. Neither is there any question that it will substantially increase its share of the vote in this week’s ballot. Most psephologists predict Nigel Farage’s motley band will move into double figures for the first time, picking up another 40-odd seats in the process. Not sufficient to make a difference on the ground, perhaps; but more than enough to tilt the national rankings.

With the focus on Tory issues and Tory seats, Mr Cameron will be the loser. And this weekend’s war of words – with Ukip accusing the Tories of “dirty tricks” and Ken Clarke dismissing Ukip as “a collection of clowns” – gives a hint of the scale of the threat.

The Prime Min-ister is not the only one under pressure. Nick Clegg will be hoping the Liberal Democrats manage their usual feat of outperforming dire national ratings in local contests. But it is conceivable that Ukip will beat them into fourth; and, even if they cling on, unless the catastrophic post-Coalition losses are clearly slowing, it will be a tough blow for the Government’s beleaguered junior partner.

For the time being, though, Mr Clegg’s leadership is safe – thanks to the Liberal Democrat win in Eastleigh. The same cannot be said of Mr Cameron. Indeed, if the Tories lose more than a third of their 2009 gains, then the rosy glow of unity inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s death will swiftly evaporate and the corridors of Westminster will be fraught with sedition and conspiracy once more.

To depose Mr Cameron, or even attempt to do so, would be an act of unmitigated folly. Such destructive divisions would be electoral suicide, putting the 2015 majority that the rebels doubt Mr Cameron can muster even further out of reach. Political parties do not always act rationally, however, and much soul-searching can be expected to follow Thursday’s vote.

The temptation will be to lurch to the right. Yet concessions already made – the promise of an EU referendum, say – bought the Prime Minister barely a moment’s breathing space, and further indulgences are no more likely to permanently win the mutinous round. Nor does the problem end with the fallout from the local elections. In fact, this week’s battle is just a prelude to next year’s far more politically significant European Parliament vote – in which Ukip has high hopes of coming first and pushing the Tories into third behind Labour. The fight for the right, and for Mr Cameron’s political life, is only just beginning.