The IoS political editor on on MPs' holidays, a chance for Mandelson, petrolhead Pickles and a drinking problem

Politicians should be recess-ready, which is not packing socks but being prepared for political storms

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If you thought this summer's weather has been changeable – torrential rain one day, a 30C heatwave the next – then events of the past week reveal how the political climate is even more unpredictable.

A few days ago, it had seemed that the Conservatives were heading off into the summer recess with the upper hand. Labour's lead was narrowing and Tory MPs enjoyed a warm front as they headed for the deckchairs. But then three rain clouds – small, but still potentially troubling – emerged to spoil David Cameron's holiday, underscoring how fragile is the state of play between the Westminster parties.

The first was George Osborne's father-in-law, Lord Howell, referring to the North-east as desolate (he actually meant the North-west, but the effect of annoying the entire population of northern England was the same). The second was the former Conservative Party treasurer Peter Cruddas's libel victory against The Sunday Times, which prompted the judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, to personally accuse the Prime Minister of humiliating him. The third, on the same day as the Cruddas ruling, was that the Government lost a High Court case over the planned closure of Lewisham hospital.

How these three events are connected is that they all show the Tories' strategy of picking up votes from the centre ground (and therefore winning the next election outright) is faltering. In areas where it must reach out beyond traditional support, Mr Cameron's party is perceived to be weak. Three small rain clouds that could, together, merge into a thunderstorm.

So, Cameron's attempts to appeal to voters in all areas of the country, not just the south, sounds a less convincing Tory line than Lord Howell's comments about the "desolate" north. Similarly, when a working class comprehensive school-educated former treasurer suggests he was treated less favourably by the Prime Minister than his Oxford chum Andrew Feldman, as Cruddas did, the idea that the Prime Minister can scoop up votes from blue-collar workers sounds a bit wobbly. And, finally, the Lewisham ruling is a serious blow to Tory attempts to reassure the wider public that the party is not going to drive the NHS into the ground. These three examples may be more about perception, than reality. But it is perception that loses elections. The Home Office's tougher line on immigration can only fuel this bad weather.

It may be the first week of August, but there is no silly season in Westminster. Recent history shows that political parties must always be "recess-ready", and by that I don't mean packing their socks into their loafers, but being prepared for major political storms to erupt during recess. The idea that, just because politicians are having a break, news goes on holiday, is laughable. So, consider Mr Cameron's Easter break of 2012: it began with the controversy over Peter Cruddas, and things quickly escalated with the fallout from the Budget, with rows over the bungled pasty and caravan taxes. Recesses create vacuums where, unless a party is in control, mischief and dissent thrive.

Gordon Brown suffered a difficult summer in 2008, when David Miliband positioned himself as a challenger to his leadership. So Labour should know all about being "recess-ready". But this last week, when the Tory pitch for the centre ground faltered, where were Labour? Ed Miliband was on holiday, which is fair enough, but where was the daily onslaught of policy alternatives, of rebuttal and, what Labour used to have under Tony Blair, "prebuttal", where lines of attack would be put out before the Conservative opposition had time to do up its shoelaces? The Labour leader, from a distance with his family in France, may have been scratching his head when one of his MPs, George Mudie, described his leadership as hesitant and confused. But Mudie's comments merely reflected a sense that, at a moment when the Tory electoral offer was found wanting, so was Labour's.

Handy Mandy

What makes Miliband's situation look worse is Cameron's appointment of Jim Messina, Barack Obama's election strategist and mastermind of grassroots campaigning. Incidentally, I hear Messina is a Manchester United fan - I wonder what the enthusiastically Labour-supporting Sir Alex Ferguson thinks of this? Labour can claim to match Messina with Arnie Graf, another US specialist who is advising Miliband, but, crucially, the party does not have in place a carnivore like Lynton Crosby, and it is starting to show. After Tom Watson's resignation as election strategist there are calls for a "fourth coming" by Peter Mandelson. Miliband needs to hurry up. We may be 21 months away from the next election, but, to abuse the political cliché, a year is a short time in politics.

Pavements are for people

The decision by Eric Pickles to allow residents to turn their own drives into parking spaces is a depressing example of our car-centric society. The Communities Secretary reckons that homeowners can make up to £2,400 a year if they turn their land into car parks. Pickles says relaxing planning rules will make it less likely that people will pave over their own lawns (which reduces wildlife habitat and increases flooding). But surely the opposite is true? Apart from the fact that not many of us have vast drives anyway – and those that do are not the most hard-pressed people in the country – we should be encouraging less car use, not more.

Clive calls time

Last week, we lobby journalists said goodbye to Clive Brown, the head barman at the House of Commons press gallery bar for the past 20 years. The most discreet person in the whole of Westminster (not a difficult accolade to earn, admittedly), he must have overheard some unprintable stories – as well as utter rubbish – from hacks down the years. I remember my first glass of white wine served by Clive on my first day in the Commons, 2 April 2001. Not a perfect vintage, but you never went to the press bar for the quality of the wine.

Clive's story neatly illustrates the way journalism, and Westminster, has changed over the past two decades. In 2007, in the name of "modernism", the Commons authorities knocked down the wood-panelled bar that had been there for more than a century and replaced it with a shiny glass and metal brasserie, serving lattés alongside the pints. Drinking in Westminster at lunchtime is the exception, not the norm, these days. Today, journalists are tweeting and live-blogging as they queue up for iced coffee and tray bakes. It is not only Clive I will miss.

twitter.com/@janemerrick23

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