A break for punch-drunk politicians

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent

  • Published
Nick Clegg
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Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was a casualty of the 2017 general election

So farewell, then: majority government, the EU, deficit reduction, new grammar schools, Commons clerks with wigs, MPs with ties, and Nick Clegg.

Parliament's summer break gives a punch-drunk political establishment a much-needed chance to ponder the total transformation of the political scene over the year since the EU referendum.

But Parliament and in particular the Commons will now be critical to whatever decisions the government attempts to push through, whether on Brexit, social care funding or pretty much anything else.

So, leaving aside the PM and the Labour leader, who will be the key figures?

John Bercow

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John Bercow is unlikely to be vacating the Speaker's chair any time soon

In other circumstances Mr Speaker would be cruising toward the end of his period in the chair. In this unexpectedly hung Parliament, he has been reinvigorated and shows no signs of moving on.

He has delivered a series of procedural rulings on everything from cosmetic issues about the appropriate garb of MPs to the amendments to be voted on in the Queen's Speech debate.

In the absence of opposition day debates, he has been allowing a generous ration of emergency debates and urgent questions, and his curt summons to the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, to make a statement on HS2 was a sign of just how empowered he feels.

Sir Keir Starmer

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Not a natural ally of Jeremy Corbyn's, Sir Keir Starmer has become a key figure within the party

As Labour's point person on Brexit, Starmzy is one of the most important players on the biggest issue before Parliament and the country.

Labour is now positioned to slam the government on almost any Brexit terms that might emerge from the divorce negotiations with the EU, and will almost certainly make ministers' lives very difficult during the passage of the long list of Brexit legislation which will hit both Houses in the autumn.

But he also has to hold the ring internally between the top trio in the leadership, who take the classic Bennite view that the UK should leave the EU, and the majority of MPs, most union leaders and many of the new voters who flocked to Labour at the election, who want the gentlest possible Brexit - or no Brexit at all.

Stephen Gethins

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Stephen Gethins has the smallest majority in the Commons but a big future ahead of him

The SNP's smart cerebral Brexit spokesman is a natural strategic partner for Sir Keir Starmer in efforts to make the government's life difficult, and a dangerous predator if Labour can't manage its internal divisions.

Had he not seen his majority slashed to a nerve-wracking two votes, he might have been the natural successor to Angus Robertson as his party's Westminster leader - but he will undoubtedly be the main architect of its approach to Brexit legislation.

He is about as Europhile as any MP in the Commons and he works effectively across party lines, which cannot be said of all his colleagues.

Sir Vince Cable

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Vince Cable says he wants to reach out to MPs in other parties

The new Lib Dem leader is regarded as another political Gandalf, dispensing wisdom and wisecracks in the Jeremy Corbyn mould.

But his election is accompanied by the crunching of changing gears as the cadre of youngish enthusiasts of the Farronista era are replaced by a lone wolf leader who sometimes seems to make it up as he goes along.

He brings undoubted economic experience and gravitas and he is an effective Commons performer - but does he have the street smarts to put his party at the heart of a possible political realignment, if other parties fragment under the pressure of Brexit and ideological battles?

Nicky Morgan

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Nicky Morgan will be holding former colleagues to account in her new role

A former chair of the Treasury Select Committee is supposed to have claimed that three people run the British economy: the chancellor, the governor of the Bank of England - and him.

His latest successor was education secretary under David Cameron, a Remain campaigner in the referendum and a critic of Theresa May's policies and even her wardrobe.

Nicky Morgan is now at the epicentre of the two key debates of the next few years. The economics of Brexit and its impact on the City of London will, of course, pre-occupy her committee. But it could also end up umpiring the debate on whether the government should continue with austerity or slow down its efforts at deficit reduction.

As a Left Tory, she is interestingly positioned. Watch her closely.

Nigel Dodds

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Nigel Dodds and other DUP MPs are backing the government - but at what cost?

The Westminster leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party is the man who can - at a price - supply the Commons votes the government needs for its survival, through the confidence and supply deal the party struck with Theresa May, after some considerable negotiation.

Few parties are more regularly misunderstood in Westminster than his band of 10 MPs.

They may be social conservatives, but they don't imagine they can impose their values on the rest of the UK.

They are not the Northern Ireland franchise of the Conservative Party and have a quite different set of instincts on many issues. Mr Dodds not long ago denounced the Tories' descent into "free market fundamentalism", noting rather pungently that "Mrs Thatcher, as she was in some other matters, was wrong about the Good Samaritan. What mattered was not that he had hard cash but that he had good intentions."

The DUP will support the government in critical votes but there will be an audible "ker-ching" from their tills, each time they exact a price from ministers.

Gavin Williamson

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Gavin Williamson (right) has the ear of the prime minister and his eyes peeled

Almost invisibly, the Tory chief whip is the crisis manager who keeps the business of government going.

He brokered that confidence and supply deal with the DUP and his relationship with Nigel Dodds (via DUP whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson) is one of the jugular veins of the current set-up.

The next few months will be a stern test of his stamina and resourcefulness.

He is often spotted sniffing the air in the bars and canteens, while watching opposition MPs from the corner of his eye - to the point where opposition whips have started to stage furtive plotting sessions, just for the pleasure of watching him try to guess what they're up to.