The UK is in the midst of one of the most extraordinary Autumn Party Conference seasons in living memory. Although the conferences 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 of the EU potentially on the horizon.
And to give this year’s party season extra spice, all of this is playing out in the backdrop of the Government’s release of official papers, under order of the House of Commons, showing the worrisome implications of a potential no-deal exit from the EU. Plus also Boris Johnson’s controversial suspension of Parliament potentially until mid-October.
The latter is already causing the prime minister legal, let alone political, troubles with three leading Scottish judges declaring that his shutdown order to be unlawful and, further, that he misled the Queen and electorate by asserting this was for reasons other than preventing proper scrutiny of his Brexit strategy by legislators. This opens up the remarkable possibility, with the UK Supreme Court ruling on the issue early this week, that the courts could force Johnson to reopen Parliament this month.
It is in this extraordinary cauldron of political turmoil that the Liberal Democrats met in Bournemouth last week; followed by Labour this week in Brighton; 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 conferences are significantly more than the tightly controlled celebrations of party success that is sometimes conventional wisdom.
With the stakes in play growing, and a thick Brexit fog still over Parliament, there is growing concern about the prospects of crashing out of the EU in a disorderly fashion.
Their importance, which sees activists, elected politicians, and party apparatchiks from across the nation come together, is showcased by last year’s season. At the Labour event in Blackpool, for instance, conference overwhelmingly passed a statement to keep the option on the table of a second Brexit referendum which might yet come to fruition. The Labour resolution might ultimately see a vote on the terms of any eventual exit deal, rather than whether Britain should remain in the EU per se, but nonetheless has been influential in setting the agenda.
This was especially so as it immediately followed Theresa May’s humiliation by fellow European leaders at the September 2018 Salzburg summit when her ‘Chequers plan’ for Brexit was roundly criticised. This was a diplomatic disaster that left May very vulnerable in Downing Street, with her critics who favour different EU exit outcomes growing in their defiance.
And this in turn raised the political pressure, even higher, for May in Birmingham at the Tory event in October 2018. Here she was under intense pressure from many Brexiteer critics — including Johnson — who wanted her to ditch her Chequers plan in what was the beginning of the end for her premiership.
This year’s conference drama comes at a moment when — under current timelines — there may be only just over a month before the UK leaves the EU. This is because, despite a new law from Parliament trying to take a no-deal Brexit off-the table, Johnson insists that the UK must leave the EU come what may on October 31, a matter he discussed last week with European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker in the search for a compromise before the EU summit on October 17-18.
The term no-deal is, even now, widely misunderstood by much of the UK public, let alone international audiences. It would mean that London will automatically leave the EU without many of the rules that regulate the UK’s relationships with the EU.
And, also, many economic relationships with the rest of the world too will be undermined as these are underpinned by trade treaties that the Brussels-based club has agreed with key nations from Canada to Japan. With October 31 approaching fast, only around a quarter of 40 planned post-Brexit trade agreements have so far been signed.
A common error held by some is that there is only one no-deal outcome, when there are in fact plausibly multiple no-deal scenarios. At the extreme end of the spectrum is a chaotic no-deal Brexit whereby negotiations between Brussels and London break down acrimoniously. A version of this chaotic option, even now, seems unlikely, but cannot be completely dismissed.
So with the stakes in play growing, and a thick Brexit fog still over Parliament, there is growing concern about the prospects of crashing out of the EU in a disorderly fashion. In previously secret government documents (some of which remain redacted) released this month, the implications of such a no-deal Brexit are cited to include rising food and fuel prices, disruption to medical supplies, and potentially even public disorder on the streets.
Taken overall, the current conference season could therefore become one of the most consequential in living memory. While the influence of these events has been hollowed out, they remain key fixtures in the political calendar and will help frame the Westminster agenda in what could become a remarkably turbulent Autumn and Winter potentially witnessing not just the United Kingdom leaving the EU, but also a general election.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics