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In poll position for the new year

Hmm, 2011: what might it hold? It is hard not to be pessimistic, apprehensive and desperate about one's personal prospects in the year ahead - and that's only Mike Russell's outlook.

At least as if he loses his job as Education Secretary following the forthcoming Holyrood elections, he can at least expect to remain a list member with pay and pension intact - courtesy of our quaint electoral process that allows losers to win.

He should read this column carefully. In January 2009, I warned Fiona Hyslop to expect that phone call from he who ordains who is in and who is out. The call came.

In January 2010, I suggested Tory Liz Smith was the one to watch and she has indeed been so active that I'm struggling to remember the other spokesmen. Oh yes, Labour's Des McNulty - probably the next Education Secretary. The heather won't be burning next year, then.

So what do I think in January 2011? Well, the election will be closer than the polls currently suggest, but the SNP will return to second place and Labour will be looking to form a coalition. This might not be easy: the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be squeezed, and neither may have enough MSPs to deliver a government.

For the first time, a coalition might require three parties, maybe a unionist coalition with Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats - or an anti-establishment coalition of the SNP, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that keeps Labour out of power.

This prospect depends on how many Liberal Democrats survive a visitation by the grim reaper. He has been sharpening his blade impatiently since they entered into their pact of death with David Cameron at Westminster. As he slices through their ranks, transforming their once complacent, plump posteriors to quivering jelly, methinks they will want to distance themselves from the Tories through a tryst with Labour - and where better to start than in Scotland where so many of their Westminster seats are held?

Scottish Liberal Democrats were worried about Clegg's coalition when it was formed. Now, as the reaction to their party's betrayal on English tuition fees and its knock-on effect in Scotland begins to hit home, and as RAF Leuchars fights for its life, who knows which Liberal Democrat seats will be safe in May except for Orkney and Shetland? Double figures would be termed a famous victory if the election were held today.

The Tories can expect to do better if only for the reason that they said they were going to be austere and they have lived up to their promise. They may have discovered that the public finances were worse than they expected. But they did say there would be cuts and that they would be now, rather than pretending they would delay them. The Tories will retain some support for this, er, political honesty.

So the two smaller parties may have to join together in choosing the next Scottish government.

Labour's problem lies in the poor quality of its frontbench team. The party leader Iain Gray continues to underwhelm. I see him go unnoticed and unrecognised at Hibs matches (which is probably why he feels able to attend). The rest of the frontbench have done little but carp at the Government, thinking it will only be a matter of time before they are returned to power.

For the SNP, even a jaded Alex Salmond is still hard to beat, but that might not be enough and opposition is not for him. Expect therefore Mike Russell to challenge Nicola Sturgeon, if only to secure the deputy leadership.

2011? You read it here first, Mike.

Brian Monteith was twice a loser that won.

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