Traditionally the ‘silly season’ month, August has been anything but for government and opposition, as both face serious internal disharmony and threats of splits.
The past month has been dominated by the anti-Semitism row engulfing Labour. Story after story has been dredged up seeking to point out historic links between Corbyn and various extremists. It is fair to say the issue has not been handled well by the Labour leadership, which has allowed the toxic debate to rumble on all summer. Instead of using August to set out a range of eye-catching policy proposals, the party has repeatedly had to fend off accusations made against its leader.
This issue goes to the heart of the debate around the future of the party – and whether a split is inevitable. By the end of August, Frank Field MP, the long-standing and respected MP for Birkenhead, had resigned the whip and Mike Gapes MP, a consistent critic of Corbyn’s leadership, has suggested he will follow suit. Whether this has any overall impact on the direction of the party remains to be seen. Field, whilst respected, is something of a lone wolf within the party. Without a large enough grouping of MPs deciding to take coordinated action, it is highly unlikely that any move against the current leadership will achieve sufficient momentum (no pun intended).
For the Conservatives, Brexit continues to be the issue that threatens to rip the party apart. Dominic Raab MP, the new Brexit Secretary, has begun steadily and confidently by using the summer recess to issue the first batch of ‘no-deal’ Brexit sector guidance documents and to hold meetings with Michel Barnier, reported as being constructive. However, it is at home that problems remain with growing support among Brexiteers, increasingly corralled by Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees Mogg to ‘#ChuckChequers’. The PM has long had to deal with former colleague George Osborne using his Evening Standard editorials to lambast her from a Remain perspective. With Johnson now on the backbenches, she now faces him using his Daily Telegraph column to attack her Brexit approach on a weekly basis from a Leave standpoint. To an extent, the PM can do no right.
Conservative MPs have reported an upturn in membership locally over the summer. Yet this hasn’t been met with the delight from the leadership that might be expected. Largely, this is because the recruitment drive is being pushed by Aaron Banks, former UKIP and Leave.EU donor, who wants to bring about a ‘Blue Wave’ of new Eurosceptic members who could push the party towards a harder-right perspective. Some Conservative commentators have questioned how impactful Banks will be, but the possibility of a Momentum-style influx on the right has moderate and modernising MPs worried.
August wasn’t entirely bereft of government announcements. Notably, James Brokenshire MP’s department (Housing, Communities and Local Government) published two long-awaited housing papers: the Social Housing Green Paper and a Rough Sleeping Strategy. The social housing paper seeks to adopt a new approach to the sector – including empowering residents against rogue landlords, encouraging tenants to ‘springboard’ into ownership and overall ending the ‘stigma’ of those in social housing. Crucially, however, no new funding to support the building of more council homes was announced. More positive funding news was set out in the Rough Sleeping Strategy, with £100m allocated to getting people off the streets. Brokenshire has been vocal on fixing the UK’s housing market; that he has used the summer to announce policies around social housing and rough sleeping suggests a slight shifting of housing priorities and the need to tackle growing problems around homelessness in particular.
Parliament returns for a fortnight before MPs head off for their respective party conferences, where you are likely to get long odds on anything other than splits and party disagreement dominating the agenda.