The political party conference season is one of the big set piece events of the political year. Behind security checks and surrounded by people who largely share your way of thinking (with only the nation’s entire lobby press pack watching) it is a chance to speak plainly and deal with the issues that matter. So, as we reflect on the latest conference – did the Conservative party manage to shed any light on their plan to “Get Brexit Done”, and what comes next?
Conference: a party renewed
This year’s Conservative Conference was different. The Prime Minister did not have the calmest of run ups to his first Conference, having lost his battle with the Supreme Court. The ruling meant that Parliament was in session where it would normally be on recess – limiting the number of Conservative MPs who could safely be decanted to Manchester. He also faced accusations of sexual harassment and corruption. These are not, by any means, insignificant events, but Boris Johnson seems able to shrug off events that would end the careers of other politicians. He remains well liked by the party loyal, and his presence added an energy that none of us had felt at a Conservative Conference in years.
There was also a notable younger contingent of members in attendance. The central Conservative team has welcomed this and admitted that it was not of their own making. It’s interesting, and while it by no means indicates a fall in the youth vote for Labour, it does perhaps show a broadening interest in politics.
However, there was a strange disconnect between life inside the Conference and the world beyond. As with Labour last week the party was more focused on talking to itself, the outside perspective was often a jarring experience. While Priti Patel and Sajid Javid were cheered by the membership, the country at large seemed less than enthusiastic.
Politics is an emotional and divisive subject, but this Conference set a particularly confrontational tone, and it’s one that will have a profound impact on the way politics is conducted in the coming months. While the Conservative leader strived to paint himself as a kind, caring, One Nation Conservative, it was at odds with both his tough Brexit narrative and the heavily present free-market Thatcherite wing of the party. Tough on Brexit, tough on immigration, tough on crime – these messages cut through, whether he wanted them to or not.
Back to Brexit
As we all return to London the Brexit issue remains alive, if not well. During the Prime Minister’s speech on the final day of Conference he announced that he would be sending a new Brexit deal to the EU for consideration. The blueprint proposes the abolition of the current Irish Backstop (yes, the same one that saw Theresa May’s deal fail) and the implementation of a mixture of checks at ports on the Irish Sea and away from the border.
Additionally, Northern Ireland would leave the EU’s customs union but keep EU regulations on agriculture, food and industrial goods for four years. At that point, the Northern Irish government would vote on their future alignment.
While the Prime Minister remains adamant that the deal shows flexibility and compromise, the EU has already said that the current blueprint is unworkable as it stands. However, talks have begun over what might make the deal acceptable for Europe and that is no small thing. A few months ago, Theresa May was told negotiations were over and the Withdrawal Agreement was firmly closed. Lines appear to be shifting.
The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn warned that “No Labour MP could support such a reckless deal that will be used as a springboard to attack rights and standards in this country.” Some Labour MPs have indicated tentative support for the current deal. So have vocal members from the no-deal supporting right, the deal supporting left of the Conservative party, and the DUP. An uneasy coalition is emerging, and it might just be enough to get the deal through Parliament. However, that is only half the battle. The current obstacle is the distance between the current UK offer and a position the EU will accept. A deal, while still unlikely, is not impossible.
The truth is, little has changed. Until the EU accepts a deal, it is still just another unknown and that remains a key problem for Parliament. Additionally, the EU has little incentive to make large compromises. It knows that Boris’s position is weak and that a General Election is likely. Why not wait to see who emerges victorious?
The UK political media are calling the week of 14 October ‘Hell Week’, and with good reason. Boris Johnson will attempt to hold a vote on his new legislative agenda, a vote that if he loses will likely see him removed as Prime Minister. At the same time, he will have to attend the final EU Summit before the 31 October Brexit deadline. The day afterwards, he is legally obligated to request an extension to Article 50 – something he has previously refused to do. While the week may not mark the final chapter in the Brexit saga, it will certainly mark the next.
Will Boris secure a deal? Will Parliament accept it? Will he break the law and refuse to request an extension? Will the EU grant an extension?
Hell Week will give us answers to these questions, but they may not be the ones we want.