UK political parties prepare for a conference season like no other

UK political parties prepare for a conference season like no other

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) meets members of the public during his visits to Doncaster Market, in Doncaster, northern England, on September 13, 2019. (AFP)

What could be one of the most extraordinary UK party conference seasons in living memory begins this week. Although these annual gatherings are not what they once were in terms of policy influence, they still serve a key democratic purpose — especially this year, with a general election and the endgame of UK’s exit from the EU on Oct. 31 potentially on the horizon.
Adding even more spice to this party season, it is playing out against the backdrop of the release last week by the government, by order of the House of Commons, of official papers revealing the worrisome potential implications of a no-deal exit from the EU.
There is also Boris Johnson’s controversial decision to suspend Parliament until mid-October, which is already causing the prime minister legal, never mind political, troubles. Three leading Scottish judges ruled last week that his order was unlawful and, further, that he misled the Queen and the electorate by asserting it was for reasons other than preventing politicians from properly scrutinizing his Brexit strategy. The UK Supreme Court will consider the matter this week, opening up the remarkable possibility that the courts could force Johnson to reopen Parliament this month.
It is in this extraordinary cauldron of political turmoil that the Liberal Democrats will meet in Bournemouth this week, followed by Labour in Brighton next week; then the Conservatives in Manchester; and the Scottish National Party in mid-October in Aberdeen. All four events are likely to show, yet again, that these conferences are significantly more than the tightly controlled celebrations of party success that conventional wisdom sometimes suggests.
The importance of the gatherings, at which activists, elected politicians and party apparatchiks from across the nation come together, was showcased during last year’s conference season. The Labour event in Blackpool, for instance, overwhelmingly passed a resolution that reserved the right of the party to hold a second Brexit referendum, something that might yet come to fruition. This might ultimately take the form of a national vote on the terms of an exit deal, rather than once again asking whether Britain should remain in the EU, but nonetheless the resolution was influential in setting the agenda.
This was especially so given that it immediately followed the humiliation of Theresa May by fellow European leaders at the September 2018 Salzburg summit, when her so-called “Chequers plan” for Brexit, setting out her vision for the future relationship between the UK and the EU, was roundly criticized. It was a diplomatic disaster that left May very vulnerable in Downing Street, allowing critics who favored different EU exit strategies to grow in their defiance.

This year’s conference drama comes at a moment when — under current deadlines — there is just a little over a month before the UK is due to leave the EU, with or without a deal.

Andrew Hammond

This in turn further increased the political pressure on May at the Tory conference in Birmingham in October last year from many Brexiteer critics — including Johnson — who wanted her to ditch the Chequers plan. It was the beginning of the end for her premiership.
This year’s conference drama comes at a moment when — under current deadlines — there is just a little over a month before the UK is due to leave the EU, with or without a deal. Despite the introduction of a new law by Parliament in an attempt to remove the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, Johnson continues to insist that the UK must leave on Oct. 31, come what may. It is also not guaranteed that Brussels would agree if asked for another extension to the deadline to allow for further negotiations.
The term “no deal” is, even at this late stage, widely misunderstood by much of the UK public, let alone international audiences. It would mean that the UK leaves without having in place many of the rules and agreements that currently regulate the UK’s relationships with EU nations, or any replacements for them.
In addition, the UK’s economic relationships with many other countries, from Canada to Japan, will be undermined as these are currently underpinned by trade treaties agreed by EU chiefs in Brussels. With Oct. 31 approaching fast, only about a quarter of 40 planned post-Brexit trade agreements have so far been signed.
A common misapprehension is that there is only one no-deal outcome; in fact there are several plausible no-deal scenarios. At the extreme end of the spectrum is a chaotic no-deal Brexit in which negotiations between Brussels and Westminster break down acrimoniously. Even now, this seems unlikely but the possibility cannot be completely dismissed.
So with the stakes rising and a thick Brexit fog still hanging over Parliament, there is growing concern about the prospects of crashing out of the EU in a disorderly fashion. In the previously secret government documents (some of which remain redacted) that were released last Wednesday, the possible results of such a no-deal Brexit that are cited include rising food and fuel prices, disruption to medical supplies and even public disorder on the streets.
Taken overall, the upcoming conference season could turn out to be one of the most consequential in living memory. While the influence of these party gatherings has been diminished, they remain key fixtures on the political calendar. They will help frame the Westminster agenda in what could be a remarkably turbulent fall and winter, during which we will potentially witness not only the UK leaving the EU but also a general election.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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