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22 July 2023

Westminster does not know how to cope with a calm summer

As politics goes quiet after a decade of chaos, SW1 may find itself yearning for everything to break down again.

By Marie Le Conte

I was out in Westminster a few days ago and came upon a chilling sight. There was a government special adviser, out in the world, having a drink, and he seemed relaxed. It was a weekday and he hadn’t – to the best of my knowledge – been spiked with a hefty dose of Valium.

Curious and compelled, I asked what was going on. The answer was simple: summer recess was a few days away, there were no scandals on the horizon, and it looked like he and his boss would be able to have some well-deserved downtime. I stared at him like he’d admitted to covering up evidence about UFOs flying over Britain.

Over the following days, I investigated. No 10 advisers did not look like they’d been run over by a large truck; MPs were knackered but looking forward to a nice, quiet break. Journalists were beginning to fret about what on earth they would be writing about until September.

Sure, there were by-elections to respond to and a rumoured reshuffle but, for the first time in a long time, it looked like things would actually calm down for a little while. It felt alien and made me wonder: when was the last time Westminster got to take a real holiday from itself?

Last summer was ruined by a Tory leadership contest, and the two years before that were engulfed by the pandemic. There was another Tory leadership contest in 2019, and 2018 and 2017 were defined by never-ending, all-consuming Brexit chaos. 2016 had a Labour leadership contest and so did 2015. In 2014 the spotlight was on Scotland and its independence referendum that September.

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If we want to find a summer break in which nothing of consequence was happening in Westminster, we have to stretch all the way back to 2013. At the risk of stating the obvious, ten years is a long time. Where were you a decade ago? I’d just graduated from university and started my first job in journalism. It feels about as distant to me as the great fire of Rome.

Crucially, I’m not the only one. The crushing majority of MPs currently in the House of Commons were elected in 2015 or later. The political editors of several national newspapers hadn’t even joined the lobby in 2013. A number of currently serving spads were still in school back then. It was a different time, a different world that many in the bubble didn’t experience.

[See also: How do Kemi Badenoch’s Brexit boasts stand up?]

Of course, the mere act of writing that things are about to get quiet surely means that something big and terrible is now going to happen, or so the newsroom saying goes. You should never complain about a quiet news day out loud, so perhaps I shouldn’t publicly wonder what a normal Westminster could feasibly look like.

Still, it is worth risking the curse and wondering: what will “normal” look like when so few people remember it? Westminster is a place ruled by conventions and where institutional memory is both vital and often lacking. We do the things we do because that is how they were done last time, but the churn is such that few people there now were around the last time it did happen.

On the journalism front, it seems likely that a number of publications will find themselves with something they are not used to: too many hacks, not enough news. Lobby teams were expanded to deal with the Brexit aftermath, and the years that followed ended up being so relentless that all hands were still needed on deck. There may be an election on the horizon at some point in the next year and a half, but it isn’t clear that these journalists will have enough to do in the meantime. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer may not have a tremendous amount in common, but they are united in their refusal to ever be thrilling or chaotic.

Speaking of which – what happens when backbenchers get bored? I ask because I don’t know either. Sure, many on the Tory benches will get angsty about their seats come the autumn, but what will they do in parliament if there is little going on? Similarly, can Starmer really keep his MPs on such a tight leash until the election, or will they start getting itchy?

On a more human level, the shift will also be an interesting one. So many people who have worked in politics over the past decade have ended up getting consumed by it, such was the intensity of their job and everything happening around it. If you made Westminster your entire personality, what do you have to fall back on once it returns, belatedly, to business as usual?

Friendships based on political gossip and social statuses gained from insider knowledge on fast-moving situations will start withering. Hell, some people may even need to get hobbies, seeing as long evenings spent haunting parliament won’t be necessary. Summer breaks will no longer be dominated by plotting and trying to guess what may happen next. They’ll just be… well, summer breaks. How quaint! How daunting!

Westminster insiders may be breathing a sigh of relief right about now, but it is likely that they will find themselves getting restless soon enough. Constant drama may be exhausting, but it is also addictive. Left with too much time to twiddle their thumbs, SW1 may find itself yearning for everything to break down again.

[See also: Why MPs are fleeing Westminster]

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