While mums and dads are panic-buying pencil cases and ironing name labels on school jumpers this week, Britain’s politicians will be swotting up for their own new term at Westminster.
Parliament doesn’t start sitting for another week, but with the Brexit talks kicking off again in Brussels on Monday and Theresa May relaunching her domestic policy agenda with a package of corporate governance proposals, there is a distinct back-to-school feeling in the air.
Back in July, like kids after the last week of the summer term, the political class headed off on their holidays in fractious and exhausted mood. The rows over Brexit had been bitter on both sides of the House of Commons, even before a gruelling general election campaign. And when June’s result upended the balance of power, chucking dozens of Tories out of their seats and filling Jeremy Corbyn’s army of young backers with the belief that their hero is heading for Downing Street, it left even seasoned Westminster watchers reeling. Everyone needed a break.
Five weeks later, anguished predictions that another general election could be called within months, or even weeks, have abated. On the Tory side, predictions that the prime minister could be toppled at any moment, which were rife before the summer, appear to have been quelled – not least because many MPs feel unenthusiastic about the obvious contenders Boris Johnson, David Davis and Philip Hammond.
May has reportedly been telling her MPs in private that she will step down well before the next general election, now due in 2022, and she is willing to take the inevitable flak that the process of “delivering Brexit” will bring.
Backbenchers may yet decide the Tory brand is taking too much of a hammering from May’s low personal ratings and the cack-handed management of the basic job of governing – a risk that seemed all too present in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, when Downing Street initially seemed unable to get a grip on the unfolding crisis.
The tight parliamentary arithmetic means a series of defeats in crucial votes remains a distinct possibility. Even before the election, Hammond had to ditch a key money-raising measure from his March budget as it became clear it could not command his party’s support.
A government unable to implement central planks of its agenda is not much of a government at all, and Brexit will present plenty of opportunities for Tory rebels to exact concessions from the leadership. But for the moment, MPs are content to let a diminished prime minister take Churchill’s advice and KBO – “keep buggering on”.
Corbyn barely took a summer break and has been touring the country visiting one target seat after another, addressing cheering crowds from Cornwall to the Western Isles. That serves at least three purposes. It gees up the half a million Labour activists and members who want to believe “another world is possible” and are willing to work for it, even if it means knocking on doors on a rainy Tuesday night. It recharges Corbyn himself, who makes no secret of his loathing for Westminster jousting and draws enormous energy from the backing of his grassroots supporters. And it creates an ever-changing backdrop of lively images for the media, which contrast well with stilted pictures of May, like an endless rerun of the election campaign.
While Corbyn’s been on tour, Labour’s other big beasts, including John McDonnell and Keir Starmer, have been preparing to shift the party’s position on Brexit. Labour had been heading for an almighty bust-up, as was evident post-election when several shadow frontbenchers were sacked after backing an amendment calling for the government to keep Britain in the single market. The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, accused those tabling the rebel amendment, including Chuka Umunna, of “virtue-signalling”, and the stage appeared to be set for a row.
By announcing that the party will now fight to keep Britain in both the single market and the customs union for a prolonged transition period beyond 2019, the party’s leadership has satisfied the rebels enough to prevent an immediate clash. But perhaps more importantly for seasoned parliamentary street fighters such as Corbyn and McDonnell, it gives them a clear dividing line with the Tories – and the realistic prospect of winning over Tory rebels.
The shadow chancellor has also sought to quell a potential conflict over changes to Labour leadership rules, perhaps because a party riven by factionalism is unlikely to appeal to swing voters casting around for a government-in-waiting.
So as the new political term begins, a sense of discipline and order appears to have been restored – and May, in particular, has patched her authority. But it may not be enough to keep everyone singing from the same hymn sheet for long.
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