The week in review: A hopeless start, an endless general election
We're already on an election footing. God knows how we're going to survive the next 18 months. But here we are, ramping up for the longest general election campaign of all time.
Tory ministers have been told to make every statement centre around a dividing line with Labour. Nick Clegg is relentlessly following an equidistance strategy. And Ed Balls is hedging his hung parliament bets by playing footsie with the Lib Dems.
The public confidence, reflected by George Osborne on Monday with the the gloomiest return-to-work message ever, was not in evidence behind closed doors. In the mucky world of parliamentary toing-and-froing, the coalition had a dreadful week.
Iain Duncan Smith went to war with Osborne – and Francis Maude too, for good measure. The latter was over the ongoing universal credit IT project disaster, a financial black hole which is visible from space. Maude's been drafted in to sort it out and he's not impressed. The former was over his attempt to protect welfare spending from another hack-and-slash visit by Osborne. That debate put left-wingers in a curious position, with IDS the champion and defender of what's left of the welfare state.
Meanwhile, the coalition's bill outlawing 'annoyance' (just as absurd as it sounds) was knocked down in the Lords, who take a dim view of broad, vague legal language. The Home Office is going to press ahead, but the defeat was big and it's doubtful they'll have the stamina to get it past a stubborn upper chamber, especially if civil liberties campaigners can make it totemic.
Tories were also hard at work dismantling the lobbing bill, a piece of legislation which took one problem, did little to address it, and then created several completely unrelated new ones. Not least among these was a draconian restriction of charities' campaigning abilities. The concessions convinced some opponents to drop their objections, but not all.
In the Lords, peers were queuing up to secure their chance to speak in the debate over the private members bill on an EU referendum. It's a ploy to kill it. If they can talk it out until February 28th they can kill it off completely. That would put Cameron in an unenviable position: If he doesn't create a government bill he'll lose support to Ukip and rekindle the rebelliousness of his backbenchers. If he does, the Lib Dems will shoot it down.
It was, all in all, a pretty dank week for the coalition, with little going their way. Even the vote they won – on a Labour motion tackling high-stakes gambling machines – saw Cameron adopt a an apologetic tone. The coalition wants to tackle the machines too, he insisted, but only after an industry report. After plain fag packs and minimum alcohol pricing, Labour wasn't having any of it.
Cameron was even facing trouble on the continent, with the Polish PM taking a rather dim view of the constant references to his countrymen in the British welfare and immigration debate.
Meanwhile, Tories in marginal seats were giving their colleagues a rather vital lesson: 'Please stop being so loud and right-wing. It's making it very difficult for the rest of us.'
All in all, a tough start to the year for the Conservatives. And Clegg's growing confidence won't have lightened their mood.
The deputy PM knows he needs to relentlessly attack Labour on the economy and the Tories on social justice. There were signs that it was all falling into place for him, despite Boris Johnson calling him a condom on his birthday – a description Clegg managed to laugh off unconvincingly.
But his newfound friendliness with Ed Balls suggested something rather more significant. The shadow chancellor's overture towards Clegg was a far cry from his previous comments about the deputy prime minister, which were seething with personal animosity. Now, all is sweetness and light between the two men and Balls "totally" understands why he went into coalition with the Tories.
It shows Labour is doing the maths and knows there's a good chance it'll end up in a Lib-lab coalition in 2015. It wouldn't do to go from mortal enemies to BFFs overnight, so the ground is must be prepared and the narrative sculptured.
And sculpt it must, because Labour shows precious little sign of having the momentum to win outright. The party's internal problems were continuing, with one Miliband ally admitting to us that the public just weren't getting his 'One Nation' message. Instead, his MPs were using Ukip-coloured leaflets to sell their qualities. Remember when the Tories did that in Eastleigh? Didn't work there either.