The Politics of Popularity – The Return to Parliament and Party Conference Season

Like being forced to bat for that awkward last hour before close of play, so MPs return to the Commons on Monday for two weeks before the party conference period begins. Both the Prime Minister, David Cameron and the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, as well as the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, have ten days of Commons sessions to put forward a strong case before they meet the party faithful face-to-face in late September. This period following a challenging recess, with issues ranging from the conflict in Libya to the riots that consumed cities across Britain for three nights have forced the leaders on all sides to show they have the ability not only to think on their feet but to also defend the image of their party at a time usually associated with the mundane and creative stories of “silly season”. Over the summer, both Cameron and Miliband have been met with fierce criticism for their initial response to the civil disorder, whilst Nick Clegg was criticised for not offering an alternative to the two main parties, appearing to value the protection of a Liberal Democrat place within the Coalition as of greater significance than the promotion of policy ideas. Each must use the next two weeks to go to their respective conferences on the front-foot, but each faces a difficult task. All three leaders must address their problems or else face the wrath of the party grassroots.

The Prime Minister has found himself as the subject of many of the articles written during the recess and the rank and file members of the Conservative Party have stressed that Cameron must distance himself from anything that could damage the party. In short, they have stated that no person is bigger than the party. Add-in the rumours of recent week that Jeremy Hunt is being prepared to be parachuted into Number 10 after the next General Election in a similar vein to that of the Blair-Brown arrangement of recent years and suddenly the Prime Minister could find himself going to Manchester having to answer a lot more questions about his own position than answering questions on how he intends to implement the second phase of his national rebuilding programme.

Ed Miliband meanwhile, appears to be more popular now than at any point in his near-year in charge of Her Majesty’s Opposition, despite being viewed as “uncharismatic” and “unspiring” by members of the party. A strong display in the final three PMQs before the summer saw Miliband and Labour catapulted into a seven point lead in a YouGov/Sunday Times poll. However as the Labour bandwagon rolls into Liverpool at the very end of September, Labour finds itself just point ahead in the polls and Miliband finds his approval rating back at 52% (YouGov/The Sun – 30.08.11). The strong initial response to the riots has found itself outstripped by overall division that remains in the party as to whether Ed is the right Miliband to challenge David Cameron in 2015.

Yet before the leaders of the two largest parties face their members and the press at Conference, the Deputy Prime Minister brings his ailing Liberal Democrats to Birmingham in mid-September for what is certain to be a turbulent four days. Despite leading the party at the point where it is the most powerful it has been in several decades, Nick Clegg finds himself as unpopular as ever with the membership. Failure to stand-up to the senior coalition partner, coupled with in-house scandals (Huhne’s points and Cable’s constant off-message agenda) have led to a fall in Clegg’s already paltry popularity figures and whispers of a potential, if slightly improbable, leadership challenge in Birmingham. Sixteen months on from the General Election, the Liberal Democrat leader potentially faces the most difficult conference of his tenure.

It would appear therefore, that all three party leaders have a lot to do in the coming two weeks. However,  with the order paper for the first of the two weeks of the post-recess session confirmed, there is little in the way of legislative action that any of the leaders could take. Debates on whether Croydon should gain city-status or whether Spelthorne should get a waste recycling plant are interspersed amongst potentially twenty-three instances of legislation receiving a second reading, none of which are particularly controversial. Instead, it would appear that David Cameron’s best form of attack is defence. By defending his NHS Reform (Amendment) Bill, alongside a strong PMQs performance, defending the strategy in Libya which has received plaudits globally, will see the Prime Minister go to Conference in a strong position. Essentially the ball is in Ed Miliband’s court. A recently leaked Labour Party briefing document suggested a “sustained period of showing DC as a right-wing, traditional Tory, will show that they no longer can claim the centre ground”. It would appear that for now, Miliband’s line of attack will not be to suggest that Cameron and the Conservatives are unfit to govern (as had been a previous allegation laid down) and will instead suggest that the Prime Minister’s own ideology is not what is needed at a time of conflict and economic strife. Yet observers on all sides have been quick to point out that Miliband’s strategy falls short of suggesting solutions to the problems that face the country, in stark contrast to the success Cameron is seen to have achieved when challenging the Labour government eighteen months ago. Whilst a good straight bat by Cameron will see him through until the Christmas period, Miliband will need to attack with flair to prevent his leadership stagnating. As for Nick Clegg, merely standing at the non-strikers end, not running his partner out and practising a few strokes may just see the Deputy Prime Minister survive as the Liberal Democrat leader. All in all, the next two weeks will be more about soundbites and popularity, than suggestions and policies.