Happy New Year?

Will UKIP smash the established parties in May's euro elections? Will Scotland vote to leave the UK in September?

Two game-changing tests of public opinion loom ominously over the coming year's parliamentary agenda, and their outcomes will resonate through much of the activity in Westminster.

Legislation will be needed if Scotland goes independent - and if it does not, the expectation is that some new devolutionary deal will have to be offered, and that a devolutionary domino effect may then require new offers to Wales, Northern Ireland, and, who knows, maybe England too.

What would be the status of Scottish MPs if their country is in the UK's departure lounge?

Could the 2015 general election be held on schedule, or would the life of the current Parliament have to be extended until the flag of an independent Scotland was hoisted?

And would the government suddenly be a majority Conservative administration, with no need of the Lib Dems to give it a majority in the remaining UK…

Or in the other case, would the government have to launch some quasi-federalist rejig of the UK constitution?

So, one way or another, the next few months will provide plenty for the constitutionalists to chew on.

In the early part of the year, it will be a case of waiting for UKIP.

Conventional Westminster wisdom suggests that holding the Euro-elections a few months after the lifting of the transitional immigration restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals will have toxic consequences for the Coalition parties - and maybe for Labour, too.

So much of what goes on in Parliament in the run-up to that vote will be aimed at providing an antidote.

Hence the proposals for benefit restrictions on immigrants introduced to fanfares and hosannas, as a statutory instrument just before the Christmas break.

Expect the government to keep up a steady stream of initiatives on this theme.

And that's before we get to the Immigration Bill (see below).

And expect Conservative backbenchers to go further.

A number of Tory elders are extremely concerned that their leadership has left the party with an anodyne "offer" to voters in the Euro-elections, and they want to put something tougher on the table.

So I anticipate some serious efforts to get Bill Cash's proposals for the UK Parliament to assert its sovereignty over EU law debated in the chamber.

Last May, the same group pushed their leaders (not the government, crucially, because the Lib Dems wouldn't come on board) into backing the private members bill for an EU referendum, after the Speaker allowed them to put down an amendment in the Queen's Speech debate.

That might be a little late to influence the Euro-vote, next May, but another serious show of backbench strength on some vote-able motion could once again prod David Cameron into taking a more robust position.

Meanwhile backbencher James Wharton's EU Referendum Bill will be launched into the House of Lords, under the care of the avuncular Lord Dobbs, with a second reading debate on January 10th.

Their Lordships almost never reject a bill at that stage, but I expect that opponents will bog it down with amendments and keep the detailed committee and report stage debates running, until there's no time for the Commons to consider any amendments to the Bill… a form of legislative humane killing.

Will that outcome be seen as the work of dastardly Europhile plotters or as a sign that the Conservatives can't deliver a referendum?

And will the Conservatives then seek to keep the cause alive, by bringing in an identical private members bill in the new parliamentary session which begins in May?

That could leave them in a position to invoke the Parliament Act to over-ride opposition in the Lords, just in the run-up to the next election.

There will doubtless be other attempts Tory to reach out to potential UKIP voters.

There's talk of a move to loosen restrictions on hunting with hounds, via a statutory instrument from Owen Patterson's Defra, to bring English hunting laws (which normally limit the number of hounds that can be used to flush out a fox to just two) into line with those in Scotland (which allow more hounds).

That would show a little leg to the Countryside Alliance, and to voters who had hoped for a repeal of the hunting ban, had a Conservative government been elected in 2010.

Then there's prisoner voting.

The slightly bizarre sight of Nick Gibb, the ex-minister who chaired the special select committee set up to find a way out of Britain's imbroglio with the European court of Human Rights, signing up to a minority report, when a majority of his committee supported a compromise, suggests that this issue is far from solved and could set up another clash between the UK and a European institution (always remembering that the ECHR is not an EU body).

One of the interesting sub-plots here is the close watch Labour are keeping on the UKIP phenomenon.

Some Labour MPs fret that the row over immigration from Eastern Europe will not abate after the EU elections and that it will stir up voters in their heartlands, overturning the accepted view that UKIP is primarily a drain on the Conservative vote.

Almost everyone in Westminster takes a near Marxist view that ultimately economics will drive politics.

Conservative confidence has recovered in step with the growth statistics - but Ed Miliband's success in changing the subject to cost of living issues has added a twist to the debate.

At the last PMQs of the year, his charge that David Cameron was spouting statistics which ignored the squeeze on people's incomes was noted by Tory strategists - who are determined to ensure their leader is not seen as a desiccated calculating machine who doesn't understand real people's lives.

At the same time Labour will be seeking ways to keep the cost of living issue in the spotlight. There was an attempt to open a second front over water charges, which will doubtless continue as the Commons processes the Water Bill.

But many Labour MPs believe they need a more convincing line on the economy - especially after shadow chancellor Ed Balls' chastening experience responding to the Autumn Statement.

There has been briefing suggesting he could be replaced if he fails to make more impact.

The last Labour occupant of the Treasury, Alistair Darling, is tipped as the once and future Chancellor - but he's busy leading the 'No' campaign in Scotland and won't be available till after the vote, in September (and maybe not then, if he's on the losing side).

Might that be too late?

If Mr Darling returned, he would not have much time to change the narrative.

But there are not many other obvious contenders, although if Mr Miliband wanted to think outside the box, the Public Accounts Committee Chair, Margaret Hodge has proved herself a formidable operator, and she would bring a campaigning record on tax avoidance and a deep knowledge of where government wastes money to the job.

And an Osborne-Hodge double-act at Treasury questions would provide a fascinating parliamentary battle.

What about the Lib Dems?

They don't get much oxygen in the Commons, now their leader has no guaranteed slot at Prime Ministers Questions.

Nick Clegg's monthly DPM Question Time is a kind of four minute hate, in which Labour MPs snarl and Tory backbenchers growl.

In fact his main outlet is now his LBC radio show.

The party strategy is clearly to circle the wagons and concentrate on trying to hold their current seats and maybe sneak through in a couple of targets, and be there as a pivotal force in the next Parliament.

Next time, they murmur, they might opt to sustain a minority government from one of the other parties in return for policy concessions rather than entering a second coalition.

But first they have to reach that happy position.

In the Euro-elections the key Lib Dem performance indicator will be their vote in the South-Western region.

If they can't keep an MEP in their ancient political heartland, expect shockwaves to run through the party.

I've blogged before that it seemed for a long while that if they need to sacrifice their leader, their only real play was to give the job to Vince Cable - but that the new Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, might now provide an alternative if he performs well in the independence referendum.

And while all these undercurrents are running, expect Lib Dem MPs to devote a lot of time to constituency work and even to rebel on constituency issues.

In fact, this could be a pretty general trend.

One view of the next election is that it will be fought as 650 by-elections, with the fate of MPs determined less by the great sweep of national politics and more by local issues.

A&E closures, cuts to the armed forces, by-passes, HS2, fracking, local immigration issues, new housing developments, airport expansion (check out Zac Goldsmith's outspoken opposition to a third runway at Heathrow) and the like could all be decisive in different areas - and many of these matters will come up in legislation.

UKIP may be the focus of a populist rebellion against the established parties, but it may not be the only standard to which voters can rally.

Dr Richard Taylor, who held the Wyre Forest seat for two terms on a ticket to save the local hospital could prove to be the forerunner of a new breed of local campaigner; and Martin Bell who took true blue Tatton from the Tories could be an example for others to follow.

And few MPs nursing narrow majorities will dare to say in advance that they plan to accept an above-inflation pay increase, should that option still be on the table, come election time.

All of this will colour MPs approach to the remaining legislation of this Parliament.

In truth the Coalition front-loaded its programme to the first two years of this Parliament with the conscious aim of not having too much controversial business to transact as the next election approached...

So what's left?

The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill has now cleared the Commons, but will be tested in 4 days of Report Stage debate in the Lords from January 8th.

The Committee stage debates foreshadowed attempts to tweak or change controversial aspects of the bill on firearms licensing, dog control notices, new powers to deal with anti-social behaviour, giving shop workers greater protection from abuse and extradition arrangements.

In particular, Labour have criticised the provision to abolish the ASBO and replace it with the IPNA (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance) - currently, breaching the conditions of an ASBO is a criminal offence but this would not be the case with IPNAs.

Then there's the Care Bill, which has cleared the Lords, and starts its Commons Committee Stage on January 9th.

One hot issue is the powers for special administrators in dealing with NHS trusts that are considered to have failed (part of Clause 118, being dubbed the "hospital closure clause").

This was set to happen in Lewisham but ultimately didn't, after huge opposition.

The provision, supported by Health Minister Earl Howe, would permit the government to make cuts to one hospital even if it is a neighbouring hospital which is failing.

Another issue worth flagging is the "deferred payments scheme" - this scheme would stop anyone having to sell their property while they are still alive to pay for care in either a residential or their own home.

In the Lords this attracted opposition led by Lord Lipsey, a former member of the royal commission on long-term care of the elderly, for not being a "universal" scheme.

Which leads to the central problem, the amount of extra money needed to make the social care system really breathe...

Labour accuses the government of a failure of ambition; the government retort that Labour (or at least the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham) are stuck with an old-fashioned inflexible and statist vision of the care system... cunningly, they don't level the same charge at the shadow care minister Liz Kendall.

The other strand in all this is the personal needle between Andy Burnham and the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, whose Commons exchanges have become increasingly bitter.

I don't expect them to clash during the committee stage of this bill, but perhaps later on...

The Children and Families Bill continues its Report Stage in the Lords on January 7th.

So far Peers have clashed over provisions for fostering and looked-after children - one measure removes explicit duties to consider a child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background when placing them for adoption.

There has also been straight opposition from Labour on the bill's provisions for children with special educational needs (SEN), which have been billed as the biggest reforms to SEN provision in 30 years.

Peers still have time to press for changes.

In the Commons some MPs tried but failed to reverse controversial changes to staff to child ratios in childminder settings; it remains to be seen whether Peers will be more successful.

Baronesses Pitkeathley and Lister have put forward and amendment to be discussed in the new year on the responsibilities of local authorities for carers of disabled - they want a duty to promote the carer's well-being.

The government has a torrid time over the Defence Reform Bill and no further dates for consideration have yet been scheduled.

The Energy Bill is now at the ping pong stage - bouncing between the Commons and Lords until they can agree on its final form.

The bill is expected to go back to the Commons for considerations of Lords amendments, but there is rumour that the government will add yet another provision last-minute.

Like Godot, the Immigration Bill is expected but never seems to arrive.

And lurking in wait when its report stage is scheduled is Tory backbencher Nigel Mills' amendment calling for the loosening of border controls to Romanian and Bulgarian workers, which is currently due to take place on 1 January 2014, to be postponed until December 2018.

The government clearly hope to bat away a rebellion, but on an issue that involves both the EU and immigration (see above) their rank and file may prove hard to control.

The Offender Rehabilitation Bill has been through the Lords, and MPs await its report stage in the Commons.

Labour opposed the bill at second reading, arguing that the proposed changes to the probation service would be unworkable and threaten public safety.

Expect more clashes when they come to grapple with the detail.

The Pensions Bill has cleared the Commons, and has four more committee stage days in the Lords during January.

One controversial aspect, discussed but not amended in the Commons is the provision to stop the married person's allowance based on their spouses' history of National Insurance contributions.

This loophole is said allow 220,000 pensioners living abroad to claim on their spouse's record.

This issue could well be picked up by Peers.

The really intense Lords action could well be over the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill - aka the Gagging Bill - which has cleared the Commons, and is due for four more committee stage days in the Lords in January.

This is the preliminary sparring over the detail, with the serious clashes to follow at report stage...

Following the 'pausing' of part two of the bill, the particularly controversial bit about non-party campaigning during elections, the government promised to continue their consultation during the committee stage.

Baroness Hayter, shadow Cabinet Office minister, says that "this amounts to Peers being turned into one large focus group for policy-making."

So we can expect an onslaught of amendments at report stage - making changes to registering consultant lobbyists, the defining characteristics of being a consultant lobbyist, the definition of non-party campaigning and third parties as well as setting maximum campaign expenditure limits.

This strikes me as the kind of measure that could run into real trouble in the Lords, not least because many peers have senior roles in the kind of organisations that fear they may be fettered by these proposals.

In earlier sessions of this Parliament, peers have filleted a couple of government bills - and this may be the next one to get the treatment.

Mark D'Arcy, Parliamentary correspondent Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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