Give the Prime Minister a break. He needs one

'Even for the poor bloody infantry, the backbench MPs, the case for along recess is justified'
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The Independent Online

The Commons is like a morgue now that most of its inhabitants have decamped for three months' rest and recuperation. The builders have taken over much of the parliamentary estate. Corridors have been closed, carpets taken up and nearly all the bars and restaurants have shut down until Parliament returns on 23 October.

The Commons is like a morgue now that most of its inhabitants have decamped for three months' rest and recuperation. The builders have taken over much of the parliamentary estate. Corridors have been closed, carpets taken up and nearly all the bars and restaurants have shut down until Parliament returns on 23 October.

And for three blissful months the government machine will deal with such ministerial correspondence as the few MPs still at work generate on behalf of constituents. The replies "approved by the minister but signed in his absence" will be the main hint that ministers have left the civil servants in charge.

Several of the Blair "babes" who have been calling for more "family-friendly" hours redeem themselves by complaining at the length of the summer recess. But most MPs love the current arrangements, which allow for a complete withdrawal during August and the possibility of extended visits during September to far-flung Commonwealth countries as members of all-party delegations on "fact-finding" missions.

There is something to be said for giving our leaders the chance to recharge their run-down batteries. It is also a relief for the public to be given a reasonable break from the tedium of politics. Only columnists yearn for the spell of the "silly season" to be broken by a political bolt from the blue. At all events, there is one man in particular who needs to take his holiday seriously.

Tony Blair, it is sometimes suggested, does not have the stamina of some of his predecessors, and certainly not that of Margaret Thatcher who famously survived on a four hours' sleep a night. That he is in obvious need of a long break can be gleaned from his utterly loopy reaction to the press pictures of Baby Leo's christening. In the end he has been forced to display some common sense and relent from his petulant decision to punish the press by abandoning the hitherto happy compromise of a family photo call at the start of his Tuscan holiday this weekend.

There are certain silly-season traditions that prime ministers ignore at their peril. Early in the season comes the Queen Mum's birthday on 4 August. Even the Queen usually allows pictures of the corgis boarding the plane to Balmoral, and Prince Charles does his bit with William and Harry. In bygone ages, the lowest point in a newspaper's August diet was fed by the "glorious 12th" of grouse-shooting on the Yorkshire and Scottish moors, complete with prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.

Even Margaret Thatcher, who hated holidays, co-operated with the press to give the impression that she was enjoying herself, although most of her holidays lasted no more than a week and were spent looking for excuses to return to take charge of a crisis - real or imagined. On one famous occasion during a press call on a Cornish beach, she decided to borrow a spaniel and was dragged across the dunes to give an unconvincing impression that she and Denis enjoyed walking the dog.

In fact, her usual billet was a mountain Schloss, courtesy of the Dowager Lady Glover, in Switzerland. There is a legendary, possibly apocryphal, story that one day, the British Prime Minister decided that she and the resting Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, should meet in Austria. The tale goes that after taking what he felt was quite enough of Mrs Thatcher's lecturing, Herr Kohl left, diplomatically pleading another pressing appointment. The frustrated Mrs Thatcher later went out for a walk, only to find Kohl with his aides in a café, feeding his face with cream cakes.

She had more success controlling events at home. In those long-gone days before mobile phones and e-mails, a control centre would be established, with earphones and radio links to Downing Street, enabling her to press the buttons of power and run the show like an airline pilot, by remote control. Needless to say, this nearly drove her staff in London to distraction. At the first opportunity she would return home early, so feeding the hungry silly-season press with fantastic stories of "Crisis: Prime Minister cuts holiday short". Almost exactly 10 years ago, in 1990, during her last summer in Downing Street, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait offered her the golden opportunity to cancel everyone else's holidays as well as her own by recalling Parliament.

It was Harold Wilson who managed to convey the most effective subliminal images of a man of the people enjoying a prime ministerial holiday on a scale modest enough to appeal to the press, Labour voters and public alike. Mr Wilson was not a rich man, but had, for years, owned a small bungalow in the Scilly Isles. Complete with family and Labrador dog Paddy, the original people's prime minister always got a sympathetic reception for his outwardly simple tastes. His biography, by Ben Pimlott, records a delightful photograph of Mr Wilson shopping for groceries in the St Mary's branch of the Co-op. Who says political spin is only a Blair invention?

Of course, in those days sterling crises and exchange controls limited us to taking no more that £50 abroad, so a Labour prime ministerial holiday outside these shores would have been a living-life-high-on-the-hog story worthy of John Prescott or Lord Irvine. Mr Wilson took great care to shield himself from accusations of double standards.

Sir Edward Heath introduced the action holiday. The healthy and genuine passion for sailing in his yacht Morning Cloud conjured up an image to match his then slogan - "Action not Words". Sir Edward enjoyed sailing during Cowes Week at the end of August. Until William Hague's adventures with water-rafting and swimming with dolphins, no other senior politician had enjoyed such a penchant for the exotic.

By the time Mr Blair returns, refreshed from his two weeks in Tuscany courtesy of Count Strozzi, and a further week in France, he will actually be entitled to pat himself on the back. The idea that he simply lounges around drinking Campari and soda and playing tennis is somewhat far off the mark. This is probably where the strategic thinking about the date of the next election will be done. Certainly the nightmare of the redrafting of the party conference speech for Brighton will begin here. And if Mr Blair's family think they have him all to themselves, they are reckoning without the constant phone calls and stream of visitors.

But even a holiday like this will result in a servicing of the Blair thought processes. Tellingly, it was while on one such vacation that Mr Blair took the important decision to appoint Alastair Campbell as his press secretary.

Even for the poor bloody infantry, the backbench MPs, the case for a long recess is justified. The sheer joy of being able to live for several weeks in my own home in my constituency, 200 miles from the Commons, was enhanced by not having to flog down to London and back.

And if our rulers just want a bucket-and-spade holiday, there are always the party conferences in Bournemouth and Brighton, although Blackpool is not universally loved. Meanwhile, let them and Tony Blair give themselves, and us, a rest. We all deserve it.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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