August has not been a Westminster month for almost 100 years. Parliament is always in recess, and it is the month when most parliamentarians take what holiday they can get. That, of course, has not stopped journalists castigating Members’ long holidays.
Now that I am no longer in the House I feel freer to defend those who are. In 40 years in Parliament my wife and I never had more than 17 days off consecutively. Certainly those 200 or more new members elected on 6 May will have already discovered that recess and holiday are not identical terms. Constituencies do not disappear when Parliament is not in session, nor does the daily postbag, nor, these days, the avalanche of e-mails to which most Members are subjected.
Gone are the days when Prime Ministers could, like Baldwin, disappear to the south of France for six weeks on end, and when long recesses really were long. Parliament would, until the First World War, regularly sit into August – but it would then rise until February!
Changing times bring changing patterns and this August has certainly broken new ground – or rather the coalition government has. For we have had an almost daily announcement of new policy initiatives and when MPs get together again in September it will be with increasing interest in – and a good deal of anxiety about – precisely what cuts will be announced by the Chancellor in October.
It has already become clear that the Cameron/Clegg partnership is determined to tackle the massive deficit as quickly and as thoroughly as they possibly can. I saw something of this determination first hand at the end of July. We gave a garden party at our home for my successor, the new MP for South Staffordshire, Gavin Williamson, and the Chancellor generously found time to come along and speak to the party faithful, who had gathered in fairly large numbers on our lawn. Many of them had come partly out of curiosity to see George Osborne for the first time. Many of them had been sceptical, and some unhappy, at the formation of the coalition government. It was clear that the Chancellor convinced the vast majority of our guests that a coalition had been the right decision, and that the painful road was the only sensible one if we were indeed to tackle the deficit effectively.
In fact, almost everything that has happened over the last few months has underlined the wisdom of David Cameron in seeking to create a coalition government, and not to rule alone as head of a minority administration. Much of what is going to be announced in October is bound to be unpopular in urban and rural communities the length and breadth of the UK. But the fact that we have a government of two parties, with between them a decent working majority over Labour, means that not only is the responsibility shared. The blame will be apportioned likewise – and things that no government could do if it was under fire from two opposing parties can be accomplished if it is only under fire from one.
And, of course, the official Opposition, the Labour Party, is the lamest of lame ducks while it seeks to sort out its internal problems and squabbles, and find a Leader behind whom it can unite. But the choice of Leader will not, in itself, unite the Opposition. Following the election of the Leader there will be the elections – many of them hotly contested – for the Shadow Cabinet. We will not see a cohesive Opposition properly organised before November.
So, for a variety of reasons – not all of them of its own choosing or its own making – this coalition government is able to enjoy the longest settling in period of recent years. To call it a honeymoon, given the decisions that have to be taken, would be going too far but at least circumstances are conspiring to ensure there will be no early divorce.
In fact, almost everything that has happened over the last few months has underlined the wisdom of David Cameron in seeking to create a coalition government, and not to rule alone as head of a minority administration.