Pre-season politics

MP's returned to Westminster this week for the new September sittings. For the first time this year we are meeting for two weeks before the party conferences.

It's part of the modernisation of Parliament after MP's complained that the summer recess left the Government un-scrutinised for too long.

September sittings are necessary but the House of Commons does have an odd atmosphere right now.

First of all the summer maintenance programme of Parliament's buildings has not been completed. Carpets have been taken up, exposing tatty floors. Paintings have been removed from pock-marked walls and hardboard covers up grand stone staircases.

You feel as if you have stumbled into the dressing room of a grand old duchess, before she has applied her war paint and jewellery ready for a trip to the opera.

It makes you realise the amount of work that has to be carried out to maintain these historic buildings as a modern working parliament.

The other reason the atmosphere is strange is that this feels like a temporary skirmish before the real political battle is drawn.

The annual Party Conferences have always provided a chance for parties and their leaders to re-launch themselves ready for another season of politics.
Tension is particularly high this year, with some predicting a difficult conference for the Prime Minister, and the Tories desperate to make a break-though at theirs with a General Election likely in less than 3 years.

The debates this week in the Commons feel like pre-season warm-up matches with each side trying out some new tactics ready for the real thing.

But with ongoing problems in Iraq and the Middle East, important debates about public services, pensions and the Hutton Inquiry to report soon, the pre-season feeling will not last for long.