In this blog, DRD Associate Ed Bowie assesses the state of play as Parliament goes into recess and explains how, after years of disruption, one Party looks like it’s settling in.
As Parliament heads into its long summer recess, it’s not unusual for MPs to be worn out, tired and ready to escape back to their constituencies (or wherever they truly live). This year, however, just like everything else in our lives, it’s different. MPs have barely spent any time in Westminster over the last 18 months, and most are itching to get back into the bear pit – debating, hosting, meeting and, in the case of some, late-night liaising. But the summer break provides an opportunity for reflection and planning the year ahead. For one side of politics, there’s plenty to do. For the other, it’s a case of steady-as-she-goes.
After 5 wild years, bouncing between self-inflicted distraction (Brexit) and unforeseen crises (pandemic), the Conservatives look to be occupying a comfortable political space. The Party is firmly in the driver’s seat: Boris Johnson is the commanding figure on the domestic scene, able to completely dominate discourse and debate. That status and influence doesn’t immediately attach to the holder of the keys to No. 10: Theresa May and, earlier, Gordon Brown, both struggled for much of their premierships for oxygen and relevance.
It’s not all plain sailing for the government, of course. The electorate is yet to punish for the handling of the pandemic, but it’s fairly clear that there are a few chapters of that story left to run which may yet throw up some voter frustration. And the economic situation, both as a result of Covid and the medium-term impacts of Brexit, threatens to undo much of the Conservatives’ carefully managed notion of being fiscally responsible.
Most worrying right now for No. 10 will be backbench unhappiness over planning reform. Following defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, that’s the topic that MPs will likely hear the most about over the coming weeks. In due course, poor relationships with backbenchers can be the undoing of a Prime Minister – but for now, Boris Johnson knows that his skill is in talking right over the top of Westminster. Crucially, his MPs know it too.
For that reason, eager as he is to move on from Covid-19, the Prime Minister devotes his time to what matters to ‘real’ people. His laudable Levelling Up agenda has become the raison d’être for this government, vacuuming up energy and interest in the halls of power (even if that energy did not extend to having someone draft a coherent speech on the topic last week).
Levelling Up is not just a reflection of the Prime Minister’s One Nation conservatism at play: like all Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson is an innately political and tribal being. He knows that championing the Levelling Up agenda boxes Labour into a corner. Regenerating deprived towns, investing in local industry and decarbonising the economy are all policy initiatives that would traditionally have played perfectly into Labour’s hands. But at the helm of our political landscape is a populist Prime Minister determined to occupy as much space as possible. And so, while the challenge is not small – Neil O’Brien MP is sensibly being put to work preparing a White Paper on the agenda as we speak – the Levelling Up mantra is pure politics: clever, convincing and capturing the middle ground.
The weight of the government may be resting on O’Brien’s shoulders, but going into summer the Tories know that their electoral fortunes are, while not without risk, looking bright.
Across the other side of the despatch box, the Labour Party continues to do what it does best – tear itself apart and make itself the focus of Westminster. Having stood for leader on the basis that he was the most electable candidate (an uncontroversial proposition to most people, but in some parts of the Labour Party trying to win is regarded as sinful), Keir Starmer now needs to start looking like a winner. Holding what should be a safe Labour seat, as the party did in the Batley and Spen by-election, should not be cause for celebration. It’s the bare minimum.
Instead, the Party needs to take a more sophisticated view of the electoral map and timeline. With both major parties clearly readying themselves for a 2023 General Election, time is running out to do the housework. Starmer has made a good start in that regard – this week’s decision to expel four extremist fringe groups from the Party is the latest such example of the type of decision that had to be taken. Party Conference in September is the next key milestone to drive through an overhaul of the Party’s systems in order to present a viable and mainstream Opposition political party. Meantime, Annaliese Dodds is perfectly placed to develop policy – in particular, the party’s response to Levelling Up.
However, even then there will be something missing. Few doubt Starmer’s decency or diligence, but his skillset – his dullness, his organisational prowess, his staid disposition – is hardly the ideal composition to go up against Boris Johnson. For Labour, much as it wishes otherwise, policy is hardly the thing that will jolt them into relevance – leadership, charisma and having a message are all good starting points.
So it is a difficult job ahead for Deborah Mattinson and Matt Doyle, newly installed in Starmer’s office. But after 11 years of Tory rule, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make the case that it’s time for a change. Starmer needs to spend the summer drafting his address to Conference, where he needs to stand on the podium with a clear message such as: “Do you feel better off?” behind him. It’s negative, yes – but it can also be a positive question if he can articulate not just why he wants the PM’s job, but how he’ll make ordinary lives better off if he gets to No. 10.
While O’Brien spends his summer on Levelling Up, Starmer needs to spend his figuring out how to get level with the Tories. The stakes are high for both – but it’s not hard to imagine which one will be more relaxed heading into recess.
Photo credit: Christian Adams / Standard