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Thursday 19th July 2012 | 20:00
Words: Sam Macrory
Farewell then, until September. Bar a few stragglers, MPs are fleeing from what one this week referred to as the ‘Parliamentary penitentiary’. A hard summer’s grind of constituency-tending and perhaps some complimentary Olympics tickets await, but few MPs, if any, will be sad to say goodbye to an increasingly bad-tempered atmosphere in the Palace of Westminster.
The government will be more pleased than most to shut down Parliamentary business, but as the summer break begins it is hard to dispel the idea that those ministers hitting the beach are merely planting their heads in the sand.
And no-one will be doing a more determined ostrich-impression than the Prime Minister and his Deputy. After a fractured few months, where MPs on either side of the Coalition divide argued over the future of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the House of Lords, no amount of love-affirming trips to factories or railway works can paper over the cracks appearing between David Cameron’s and Nick Clegg’s parties.
However, the cracks are spreading in multiple directions. Interviewed in this issue of the House, Mr Hunt himself demonstrates the confusion. Insisting that he is relaxed by the refusal of Liberal Democrat ministers to support him in Labour’s opposition day vote on the Culture Secretary’s conduct during News Corps’ attempted buy-off of BSkyB, Mr Hunt seems more concerned that Tory MPs believe the Lib Dem abstention gives them the right to reject Lords reform.
“I’m surprised they’re doing that because I’m a big supporter of Lords reform”, Mr Hunt argues, discussing “a wing in our party that’s always had a problem with Lords reform” and pitching himself as a more “radical” politician. Mr Hunt compares the pause over Lords reform to the break in progress to convince Lib Dems of the merits of the NHS reforms, evidence of the delicate foundations which this coalition is built on – and how far the Tory leadership is removed from many of its backbenchers. Both headaches will return in the autumn, with the Leveson inquiry into media ethics set to conclude and a tweaked Lords reform bill reemerging from the long grass. At least the recent scandal at Barclays – after its tetchy formation, the joint committee into banking will also kick into gear after the summer – managed to take the focus off Leveson, but at the very least the inquiry is likely to call for an inevitably difficult restructuring of media regulation, providing another challenge for the government. Barring a damning verdict from Leveson, Mr Hunt is likely to remain in post, but some colleagues may not be so lucky. A long-awaited reshuffle is expected. The Prime Minister is said to have complained that he simply does not have any room to manoeuvre, but David Cameron is in urgent need to appease disgruntled backbenchers. However, with Nick Clegg holding onto a fifth of ministerial positions and the PM himself reluctant to create enemies through any drastic restructuring of the government’s top ranks, he may have to think creatively to promote ambitious young Tories.
A reshuffle, however, is small fry compared to the future of the coalition itself. Tory backbenchers want a rewriting of the Coalition agreement, but influential Lib Dems like David Laws argue for nothing more than a progress review. Others, such as Simon Hughes, believe that the autumn conference season is the time to start openly discussing how the two parties will separate. And despite the good news this week on inflation and unemployment, the double dip recession is very real for many people. The government need a boost from next week’s publication of the quarterly GDP figures to be followed by a feel-good Olympic Games, but as September draws closer the merest glimpse at his in-tray over the summer will make David Cameron wince.
The summer holidays may have started, but before long the ostriches at Westminster will have to face a series of problems that have no easy solutions.
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