Election campaign

Why the ‘silly season’ might be anything but

With MPs away from the Commons until the start of September, we’ve a few weeks of pseudo-electioneering to look forward to. The photo opportunities have already begun: on Tuesday David Cameron became the first prime minister in 34 years to visit the Shetland Islands (I’m amazed it’s been so long) and the Commonwealth Games, though barely under way, have coaxed some senior figures up to Glasgow to be snapped stoically cheering on British hopefuls.

Aside from the gimmicks, however, this year’s silly season will be punctuated by more than a few significant events. I imagine all the main parties will want to keep some top figures on hand to comment on them – not least because this is the last summer before the election, and ripe time for some proto-campaigning. I doubt Ed Miliband will be disappearing for quite such a long period as last year, though as I’ve already noted, his absence did his party’s poll ratings not one bit of damage.

There’ll be plenty of opportunities for the government to try and talk up its economic policies over the next few weeks. Tomorrow we’ll get the first estimate of GDP figures for April-June 2014. They may show that the UK has passed its pre-crash peak in economic growth. A similarly symbolic moment may come on 7 August, when the latest unemployment figures are due. They could indicate that the number of people out of work has fallen below 2m. We’ve been edging closer to this marker for some time; July’s figures showed that unemployment had fallen to 2.12m in the three months to May.

On the same day Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, will reveal his organisation’s latest quarterly inflation report, inviting the usual speculation about interest rate cuts, house price booms and the cost of living.

The latter will be in focus again on 19 August when the latest inflation figures are due. These are the ones that will be used to calculate the annual increase in railway ticket prices, which will take effect from January 2015.

It’ll be intriguing to see who pops up from which party to comment on each of these announcements. Will they be left to second division MPs, or might some big beasts sally forth to manufacture a bit more interest?

It all depends who’s in town. A great number of politicians may end up in town if the Commons is recalled, which could happen if things continue to deteriorate in either the Middle East or Ukraine. The last time the House was recalled during the summer recess was on 29 August last year, to debate military action against Syria. It happened during the 2013 Easter break as well, for tributes to Margaret Thatcher on 10 April, and twice during the 2011 summer recess, on 20 July (the phone-hacking scandal) and 11 August (riots in English cities).

It’s definitely not the silly season in Scotland, of course. All parties will continue campaigning hard ahead of the referendum on 18 September. We’ve also got the two TV debates between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, on 5 August (on STV) and 12 August (on the BBC).

Having said all of this, I doubt much of what happens by way of politics over the next few weeks will have any resonance with the public at large. YouGov’s poll on the day the Commons began its summer recess put Labour on 38%, the Tories on 34%, the Lib Dems on 9% and Ukip on 11%. Given what has happened (or not happened) in previous years, I predict the poll for the day the MPs come back – 1 September – will be scarcely any different; perhaps something like: Labour 37%, Conservative 34%, Lib Dems 9%, Ukip 12%.


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