Chief Reporter Paul Dale looks ahead to this year's local council elections and whether the results could change the political landscape in Birmingham...
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition which has been running Birmingham since June 2004 is almost certain to be returned to power after this year's city council elections.
Because of the limitations of the electoral system, with only one-third of the 120 seats to be contested, it would be unrealistic for the Labour opposition group to make up enough ground in one leap to seize the 15 additional seats needed for a slender majority in the council chamber.
Any thoughts that Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader, may have of picking up the 17 or 18 seats required for a comfortable majority can be dismissed.
The way that the battle-ground pans out this time around presents the party that ran Birmingham from 1984 to 2004 with a mountain to climb. Labour is defending 17 seats, seven of which in a bad year could be viewed as marginal.
Realistically, Labour will do well not to lose in Wash-wood Heath and Nechells, where the Liberal Democrats came a close second in 2004, and could be struggling to hold on in Longbridge and Oscott. Although these are local elections, much will depend on the political situation nationally.
A Labour Government in the dying days of Tony Blair's premiership, continuing to shore up the American military effort in Iraq while casting eyes at an alleged nuclear build-up in Iran, may not play well in Birmingham's inner city Muslim-dominated wards.
There is every reason to suppose, judging by swings recorded in the 2003 and 2004 council elections, that the Iraq factor will continue to hurt Labour. By far the biggest imponderable about the 2006 elections is the proportionality in the coalition between Conservative and Liberal Democrat.
The Lib Dems are in an immensely strong position, since they are defending only eight seats, of which five can be considered entirely safe.
Only in Aston, Perry Barr and Selly Oak do the Lib Dems appear vulnerable to a Labour challenge.
The Conservatives, however, are defending 14 seats, of which four or five could be regarded as marginal.
Certainly, the Tories know they will have to improve on their 2004 performance when they took only 27.3 per cent of the vote across the city and failed to make the expected gains outside their Sutton Coldfield and Edgbaston heartlands.
A forceful Tory revival does not, on the face of it, appear likely since the party has rarely managed to break out of the 25 to 35 per cent band over the past 12 years.
If the Conservatives are to do well and remain the senior partner in the coalition they must be thinking about taking Longbridge, Oscott and Erdington from Labour.
The Tories go into the elections with 40 councillors. If they fail to add to their strength, or even lose ground, the Conservatives will face tough negotiations with their Liberal Democrat allies.
It is entirely possible to envisage the Liberal Democrats picking up two or three seats, giving them 33 in the chamber against, say, 38 or 39 for the Conservatives.
The composition of the cabinet, with three Lib Dems to seven Conservatives, already appears unbalanced given the relative size of the two groups. It is likely, if the party performs well in the elections, that Lib Dem leaders will want at least two additional cabinet seats as well as a number of scrutiny committee chairmanships.
Such an outcome could challenge the unity of the coalition, which has proved remarkably resilient for 18 months. No one should underestimate the pull of a cabinet post, which pays £27,000, and a scrutiny committee chairmanship, which carries a £19,000 salary.
As things stand at the moment, the Lib Dem group has a preference for coalition with the Conservatives rather than Labour. This is likely to be the case for as long as Sir Albert Bore remains Labour leader, since the Lib Dems do not consider him the sort of person they could do business with.
Although the 2006 elections should prove relatively uneventful for the coalition, 2007 could be more stressful.
Of the 15 seats Labour will be defending, well over half are safe. The Conservatives, however, could face difficult contests in Longbridge, Northfield, Brandwood and Bournville - all seats susceptible to a Labour revival. ..SUPL: