The annual evacuation from Westminster has begun.
With the House of Commons rising for the lengthy summer recess and MPs dispersing to their constituencies and summer holidays until September (when the House sits briefly before rising again for party conferences), we’ve entered what is described in some quarters as one of the year’s ‘silly seasons’. That is, one of the points of the year when, with Westminster largely silent, there is often a profound absence of political news.
But this summer might be anything but silly, and MPs will hardly be expecting a quiet summer with an election on the horizon – although each of the main parties will face very different challenges over the summer months.
The Lib Dems must attempt to redress their continued poor performance in the opinion polls, which augers poorly for their election prospects in 2015 – albeit that rumours of their demise are premature and they remain poised to act as kingmakers to either the Conservatives or Labour. This will require them to ensure the visibility of their ministers and party heavyweights throughout the summer recess. With David Cameron also rumoured to be considering governing as a minority should the Conservatives be the largest party after the election but lacking in a majority the Lib Dems will also need to consider the extent to which they would be prepared to work with the Conservatives on such a basis.
Labour need a good run-up to their party conference. Ed Miliband’s encounter with President Obama was not as favourably received in the media as Mr Miliband and his strategists might have hoped, and Labour will need to use the summer intelligently to challenge perceptions of a lack of policy, questions over Mr Miliband’s suitability as the most likely successor to David Cameron, and a period of weeks in which Mr Miliband’s public profile will be substantially reduced without proactive media activity, while Mr Cameron will remain very much on the front pages.
The Prime Minister will have a busy summer and will need every ounce of statesmanship to address continued questions over the UK’s future in Europe and to respond to the horrific and deplorable events in the Ukraine. But he and the Conservatives will face considerable challenges domestically with the potential to shape public perceptions ahead of the party conferences and the run-up to the election.
Last week’s reshuffle has been widely derided for being an exercise in presentation over substance, and the newly appointed ministers and secretaries of state will need to use the summer to demonstrate their abilities and aptitude. Otherwise they will continue to face questions over their appointments during the party conferences and once MPs and peers return to Westminster. Coupled with this is the threat of public sector strike action, with the announcement that NHS workers are to be balloted on whether to take industrial action over the government’s refusal to award a one percent pay rise for NHS staff. While industrial action might not take place over the summer it would generate negative headlines the Conservatives would rather avoid and which would challenge their proclamations as being the ‘party of the NHS’ – with eventual industrial action likely to harm the Party’s standing not only with NHS workers but members of the public affected by strikes.
So it might be summer, but don’t be surprised if the silly season turns out to be rather more serious this year.