Somehow the end of the summer holidays and the return to work or school in September, the start of the academic year here, always seems more like a new beginning than the first of January. In the past, it meant new uniforms and new shoes, more opportunities, a brightening of hopes and a chance to improve, however badly the last school year had ended. So it always appeared at Westminster too at the end of the summer, although nowadays members of parliament return to their chambers and normal parliamentary existence long before party conferences revive or lower anticipation for the battles ahead. The formal opening of parliament and the queen’s speech, at the start of the parliamentary session, have been moved from November to May.
Nevertheless, there is a feel of the new term in the air as we eke out the last few sunny days of a generally unsunny summer, weatherwise at least — in other respects, as the world has seen, this country and London in particular has shone. Now we need to get the Olympic posters off our streets before they draggle down to rags in the winter drizzle and face up to the rest of our lives. For the prime minister this is not an inviting prospect with tales of a ‘stalking horse’ — as usual an MP completely unheard of outside his own party — being encouraged to mount a challenge against David Cameron’s leadership to test the water of his popularity on behalf of a greater beast lurking in the wings. In this case, we presume Mayor Boris Johnson, riding high on summer popularity and bursting for a bigger stage as I pointed out last month.
Rumours that Zac Goldsmith, the environmentalist son of the late billionaire, Jimmy, and member for the cosy Conservative Richmond seat, will stand down in favour of handing his seat to Boris via an easy byelection are just about credible. The alternative plot, that his younger brother, the journalist Jo, MP for Orpington, another good Conservative outer London seat before and since its one dramatic flirtation with the Liberals in the by-election of 1962 until 1970, will fall on his sword for the greater good seems less probable. Why he should do so heaven knows, although Jo is far better known as an impressive journalist than a lowly MP. Perhaps this really was a deep cover mission and Jo was born only to keep seats in the family until it suited his larger, louder brother. David Cameron has promoted Johnson minor to the Conservative whips’ office in his recent government reshuffle but the stultifying job of party policing seems unlikely to shackle him if he really intends to provide Boris with an easy swapover and re-entry to the Commons.
Cameron has hung on to his original post-victory choices for government and cabinet office to an unusual extent among prime ministers and seems not to have done much for his image with this long delayed re-shuffle. The chancellor of the exchequer was never going anywhere, in spite of his unpopularity, in a shakeup that has taken the government several steps to the Right. A typical enough move for a Conservative prime minister balanced on increasingly shaky ground and keen, in this case, to marginalize still further his Liberal coalition partners, especially his deputy, Nick Clegg. Vote-catching green promises appear to have gone right out of the window with the appointment of the former chief whip and rightwing loyalist, Patrick McLoughlin, and the dumping of Justine Greening, an opponent of the Heathrow third runway plan, from the transport ministry. She has instead gained the international development department, theoretically worse luck for developing countries since she is said to be an ‘aid sceptic’ — this may or may not mean only that she has real understanding of her new subject and the pitfalls of international funding.
The Liberal minded elder statesman and brain box, Ken Clarke, has been replaced at the ministry of justice by Chris Grayling, the former toughie at the department of employment, who is likely to challenge European judicial interference in British government decisions. Clarke surprisingly remains in the shadowy role of minister without portfolio, one for the odd bods who may know where the skeletons are kept and who it might be handy or politic to keep around in some form or other. Peter Mandelson was also a minister without portfolio in the Blair cabinet post his orchestration of the 1997 general election.
A few sackings have been with due cause and were delivered, we are told, amid tears, recriminations and with reportedly unexpected clumsiness on the prime minister’s part. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, one of the victims, no doubt portrayed herself as such but is neither due nor will get much sympathy from those who think she should have gone some months ago when her expenses were thrown into question. She is lucky to be given a consolation prize as a senior minister at the foreign office. Perhaps Cameron is nervous of dumping too many women as they are becoming thinner on the ground in this government although there are a few new female faces around in relatively lowly posts. Theresa Villiers, another third runway opponent at the department of transport, has been shipped out to be secretary of state for Northern Ireland, thus at least adding an extra female face to cabinet.
The most surprising event, for Cameron at least, must be Iain Duncan-Smith’s refusal to shift from work and pensions to Ken Clarke’s role at justice. Oooh, shaky prime ministerial authority then, and likely to cause ructions with the treasury when it demands further welfare cuts as expected. The immovable George Osborne can’t be very happy about that, now ‘the quiet man’ has become a heavy hitter with an altogether louder voice and a surprising level of respect among his colleagues.
So here we are, not exactly a new broom, just rebristled on the Right and wielded by a potentially unsure hand that may well harden its grip further in that direction in the face of dissent and/or Boris mania. I would reiterate yet again that being an entertaining maverick does not mean not being well on the right hand side of middle or being clever enough to persuade us that a further swing that way is all for our own good and jolly good fun in the process. We shall see — I doubt Cameron is looking forward keenly to his party conference when more immediate, wholly unamusing challenges may arise.
Otherwise we are having another month of headline grabbing royal stories. Naked prince Harry, who cares? Half-naked duchess of Cambridge, who cares too, this is all pointless stuff, but memories of the hounding of Diana, princess of Wales by paparazzi have enough hold on her son or his advisors to force a counterattack on the publication of photographs of his wife sunbathing on a private holiday. Perhaps they do have to try to slap down the ultra-long lenses now if there is to be any peace for this young couple in the future without them constantly looking over their shoulders, but I hope on their own and equally privately they can laugh the non-story off as a load of salaciously reported rubbish in which sensible people have no interest. Like most gossip, it is a minor distraction from the cares and woes of real life but in this case, an even duller tale than usual. ‘Young wife sunbathes topless next to husband.’ Yippdeedoo! And the silly season is meant to be August.