There’s a different feel in Westminster this September, and it’s not because of the change of season. After a relatively sleepy summer MPs are rousing themselves and returning to the Commons, but perhaps not for too long.
At the latest a general election is expected next October, meaning a year (or possibly mere months) to go until the official campaigning begins. Behind the scenes battle buses are being polished, coffee machines filled, and gloves are slowly but surely being slipped off. The 2024 campaign has effectively already begun, and it’s beginning to show.
Back to Blair
Keir Starmer’s recent reshuffle is the one many observers have been waiting for – the big beasts are back.
Key players cast out by Jeremy Corbyn, or sitting on big jobs instead of opposition benches, have been welcomed back into the fold as Labour gets serious about forming a government team. Hilary Benn and Liz Kendall, two staunch Blairites, are back to provide gravitas and experience (Benn was in the Blair and Brown cabinets while Kendall ran for leader in 2015).
Perhaps the most interesting appointment though is Chris Bryant – the former chair of parliament’s standards committee (one of the most prominent backbench roles) has resigned that post to become a junior minister.
These veterans must have confidence in both their leader’s plans for government and his election-winning abilities, else it’s unlikely they’d have returned from the wilderness. They’ll never admit it, but Labour is beginning to smell victory.
Turning over a new page?
It’s not just Labour’s frontbenchers having a change of heart, many previously hostile newspapers have shied away from ripping into Starmer’s new appointments. The Rupert Murdoch owned Times, famously Sunak supporting, said the reshuffle “is a measure of [Starmer’s] enhanced authority, and attests to a party well run” – almost a ringing endorsement of their old foe.
Nobody likes a loser, so no explanation is needed as to why most aren’t spinning as much for the Conservatives, but Murdoch laying aside his daggers instead of plunging them deep into Sir Keir feels like a moment. It’ll be worth watching whether it is just that, a brief dalliance, or a clear slide to the left by the press.
Rebuilding ‘Broken Britain’
The coming general election will be won and lost on two questions: Are you better off than in 2010? And do you think Britain’s working?
For most Brits, the answer to both of those is no, and Labour know it. They’ve held back from providing many solutions to the country’s problems so far, but this is something they’re beginning to change as an election approaches.
Expect the new shadow cabinet to be out in force over the next few months setting out their stall on reforming public services, transport, infrastructure and more.
Next month’s conferences will be the best chance both the main parties have to make their case and will signpost the routes each intends to take as they try to accelerate across the finish line and win power.
As the election approaches both tribes are closing ranks and even the most rebellious Conservatives are falling into line after years of gunning for each other.
Boris Johnson has been using his Daily Mail column to talk about Barbie and newts rather than the expected swipes at his former protégé-turned-assassin, and even Jacob Rees-Mogg has dialled down his attacks on Rishi Sunak.
The same can be seen on the Labour side as former shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy took a big demotion to become a junior minister in that department, instead of resigning and causing a fresh row.
The move has made Starmer the undisputable titan of his party, even more so than Tony Blair who had the restrictive presence of Gordon Brown to ground him. But Nandy’s demotion may be a ticking time bomb Starmer will come to regret if she decides to cause an explosion later down the line.
Good riddance to bad rubbish
One person unlikely to hold the Conservative party line is Nadine Dorries, who’s finally left parliament in what many will see as a welcome pre-election clear out.
The timing is partly coincidental; investigations into Pincher and Warburton have concluded in the last few months, while Dorries resigned after the privileges committee delivered their damning verdict on Johnson.
But it’s also symptomatic. The Conservatives are trying to take out the trash well ahead of time in the hope that the nasty smell is gone by the election.
With so many cases of misconduct in the last few years even the strongest bleach isn’t going to clean the stains left by the likes of Pincher away, but the fact the party has started scrubbing shows intent.
There’s a clear frontrunner in this race, but the Tories aren’t giving up yet.