Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

No rest for Cameron as election year looms

Everything was as it had been for centuries when Britain's mo-narch opened her country's Parliament this week. The 2,868 diamonds on Queen Elizabeth's crown sparkled, every snob in the country fought to be as close as possible to her throne, and a variety of court flunkeys with silly names such as Gold Stick in Waiting, Blue Mantle Pursuivant or Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod marched backwards or sideways in the procession.

But the greater the pomp, the weaker the policy impact, it seems. The speech that Britain's government wrote for the 88-year-old monarch to read at the opening of Parliament was one of the most boring of her six decades-long reign; the only moment of surprise came when the Queen announced that her government plans to impose a small levy on supermarket plastic bags to reduce litter.

Seasoned observers were not surprised by this policy-free speech: With a general election due no later than May 7 next year, the last thing the government needs is a controversial initiative that divides the electorate.

Still, this is the calm before the storm - over the next 12 months, Britain will face its most severe national challenges since World War II, with epic battles over the country's place in Europe and over the very survival of a United Kingdom.

The coalition government that has ruled Britain since the inconclusive general election of May 2010 - led by the centre-right Conservatives but including the centre-left Liberal Democrats - was initially regarded as a temporary affair; the idea that the two parties could govern together for a full five-year term was widely viewed as ridiculous.

However, Prime Minister David Cameron's government proved everyone wrong: It lost some junior ministers to spats or scandals, but it kept its poise, and fulfilled its mandate to cut expenditure, reduce government debt and restore economic prosperity. The austerity Mr Cameron enforced was savage. Yet, the worst is over and the British economy's bounce-back has been stronger than that of most other developed economies.

The ultimate compliment to the government was paid this week by the opposition Labour Party, whose leaders admitted that should they win power next year, they "cannot afford to undo the current coalition's spending cuts". In short, Mr Cameron's stated objective of "instilling discipline and good housekeeping" has been achieved.

But big challenges are still piling up.

The first is Scotland's independence referendum, which takes place on Sept 18. All opinion polls indicate that a majority of Scots are against the idea of seceding from the UK. But the public mood is volatile and the real campaign has only just begun.

Furthermore, whichever way the referendum goes, Mr Cameron faces trouble. If Scotland opts for independence, that would doom his political career. But even if the result is a "no", Scotland's nationalist local government will make demands for further autonomy rights, which Mr Cameron will have to satisfy.

Moreover, the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is set to muddy the waters in the general election. This single-issue movement, which has vowed to pull Britain out of the European Union and erect barriers to immigration, has gone from being a "party of clowns and fruitcakes", as Mr Cameron once called it, to capturing a quarter of the votes cast at the European Parliament elections held last month.

UKIP is unlikely to do as well in the national elections, but it has a skilled leader in Mr Nigel Farage, who appears more approachable than Mr Cameron, and who is now fishing for votes in the Conservatives' natural constituencies in southern England, where anti-immigrant sentiments run high.

The danger from UKIP is grave: It could cost the Prime Minister the next elections, and even split his Conservative Party.

Mr Cameron resisted the temptation to introduce promises of further restrictions on immigration in this week's speech from the Queen - perhaps because he understood he could never compete with the anti-foreigner hatred propaganda that UKIP whips up. He also hopes his promise to hold a referendum at some future unspecified date on what kind of a relationship Britons want with Europe will take the sting out of the UKIP campaign.

The tactic could work. But opinion polls indicate the ruling Conservatives and opposition Labour are now running neck-and-neck with around a third of the voters' preferences each, so the presence of UKIP makes any forecast about the outcome of the next general election very difficult.

And there is always the unpredictable crisis that makes or unmakes governments.

Just about the most exciting moment in this week's royal opening of Parliament came when a page boy assigned to hold the Queen's long cloak fainted and fell to the ground with a big thud - just when the sovereign was talking about nuclear negotiations with Iran.

An omen of a foreign policy surprise?