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Columnists

Westminster watch

Simon Barrow

BarrowIt may seem as if formal political life gets replaced by its own burning embers during the parliamentary recess in Westminster, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But outward appearances are deceptive. David Cameron has already skipped one holiday to pursue his 'cuts road show', inviting the great British public to debate how and where the debt-and-recession scalpel should be inserted. Who would have thought it?

Meanwhile, the war of words between MPs of all parties and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority over the new system of Commons' allowances has continued unabated.

Then there's the Labour Party leadership hustings. The post-Brown and Blair beauty contest rumbles on in halls and internet chat rooms. It may have attracted comparatively little publicity so far but that will change in September. Meanwhile, what passes for an official opposition is in much better shape than most of its movers and shakers would have predicted three months ago.

In the immediate aftermath of the May general election it seemed as if most established political bets were off. The voters had hung precedent out to dry, and the inevitable 'honeymoon period' for the new government was not so much aimed at the cabinet and Prime Minister as at the very idea of a coalition administration. Surely 'this sort of thing' was meant for the 'Celtic fringes'?

Some habits die hard, however. The Liberal Democrats sunk to a record low of 12 percent in the opinion polls following an arrangement which many of their brightest-eyed supporters saw as a deal with the devil. By contrast, the Conservatives have maintained a dignified public posture while engaging in a softening-up exercise for a reduction in public expenditure that turns Thatcherites green with envy.

Equally intriguing has been the surge of not-so-new Labour. With no clear leader, no defined policy alternative, and a debate on the future shape of centre-left politics that bypasses an electorate more attuned to the impact of emerging policies on the wallet, the party has already clawed its way back from 29 to 38 percentage points.

The general lack of bloodletting and the media focus on Posh and Clegg has helped, naturally. But imagine what new shifts might happen when the Autumn Spending Review reveals the full scale and (for many) the horror of the Coalition's cuts? The tectonic upheaval we have seen in the political landscape looks set to go on for a while longer, and no one is quite sure where it will all end up.

In part that depends upon the outcome of a referendum on voting reform which neither changers nor non-changers want in its present form. The Alternative Vote belies its name. But it may yet be the last saving hope of those whose motto remains: 'We're all in favour of change. So long as it doesn't make any difference.'