Election looms large as MPs return after summer - Christine Jardine

For MPs today feels a bit like the first day back at school after the summer holidays, except that this time it is probably the last year before the decision is taken on whether we have done enough to pass and come back for the next session.

The general election now looms large over everything that parliament does, that MPs say or the political parties announce.

Each one interpreted through the prism of what it means about their confidence in victory, or lack of it.

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That is especially marked in the case of two prospective by elections in the autumn – in Rutherglen and Hamilton West and Mid Bedfordshire - which may offer further evidence of who is most likely to form the next Government.

And in Scotland how the recent series of financial crises and governmental cock-ups have affected the future prospects of our nationalist parties.

Of course we went into the summer break on the back of three by-election results in England which have already been poured over in minute detail for what they can tell us.

My own party – the Liberal Democrats – have now chalked up four victories which overturned massive Conservative majorities in England’s rural heartland.

A total of wins which now equals our best ever in a single parliament. Perhaps not insignificantly that was in 1992-97 and was a precursor to that Blair landslide.

Labour of course won in Selby but tripped over their own Greater London Ultra Low Emission policy in Uxbridge.

Over the past two years the picture has become increasingly gloomy for the Conservatives, but these next two polling days, coming as close as they do to the next election, could set the tone of the coming year’s debate.

In Scotland the date for the Rutherglen and Hamilton by-election will, when it is set, be the day that many hope marks the start of the Labour revival in West Central Scotland.

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There can be no doubt that their collapse from decades of supremacy to a single MP at Westminster has been fundamental to allowing the SNP stranglehold on power since 2007.

Anas Sarwar’s challenge is now to speak directly, and effectively, to those communities who have previously turned away from the Labour Party.

And in those areas which were traditional Labour strongholds there is a growing belief that Scotland can contribute to the change they desire by re-establishing old loyalties.

In the rest of the UK the picture is more diverse, some would say more tactical, with many of those disillusioned with both governing parties looking for the candidate most likely to defeat them. In the majority of cases so far that has been the Liberal Democrats.

Setting a date for those by-elections in Rutherglen and Mid Bedfordshire will be high on the list of parliament’s priorities this week as we settle in for the fray.

Of course the Government may try to delay in Mid Bedfordshire where the hokey cokey resignation of Nadine Dorries has been an embarrassing spectacle for a government already struggling.

But any shenanigans designed to put the judgement day off any longer will meet with short shrift from the opposition. And the public.

We are all eager to find out what the timing, campaigns and results will tell us.