Why Autumn 2019 is a party conference season like no other
Conference season has traditionally been an opportunity for parties to set out their stall to the electorate, and enthuse members, particularly in the run-up to a general election. With an election before the end of the year looking increasingly likely, and the October 31 Brexit deadline on the horizon, this year’s conference season was a key opportunity for parties to put on the strongest possible showing as they seek to consolidate their support in the run-up to what is proving to be one the most significant few weeks in modern political times.
Whilst the Liberal Democrats used their conference to cement their position as the “party of remain” announcing that a Liberal Democrat majority government would seek to immediately revoke Article 50, Labour provided less clarity. Labour delegates refused to back a motion which would have committed the party to backing remain in any future referendum. They instead opted for a compromise, backed by Jeremy Corbyn, which sees Labour committing to negotiate a new Brexit deal which would be subject to a referendum with Remain on the ballot – but not commit to supporting Leave or Remain until that deal had been finalised.
With the Conservative Party conference somewhat overshadowed by the remarkable Supreme Court decision, along with the failure of parliament to pass a recess motion, little was achieved in Manchester. Other than perhaps Boris Johnson doubling down his line of delivering Brexit “do or die” by October 31.
Despite the parties setting out their Brexit stalls, politics is so volatile that it remains hard to predict what will happen in the days, let alone weeks or months ahead. There are several scenarios, any combination of which could be realised.
However, one thing we can now say with certainty is that there cannot be a general election before the 31 October. Even if the prime minister seeks to table a third motion under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, November is now the earliest time for this to happen.
Presuming Johnson does want to force an election as soon as possible, he could now use the option of asking MPs to support a one-line motion, a proposal muted by the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. This would fix the date of the election and require only a simple majority to pass, less than the two thirds under the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
Yet, this approach could be a high-risk strategy for the government, as opposition MPs would likely try to amend that motion. For instance, Labour would likely try to force the release of Cox’s legal advice to the prime minister prior to his August prorogation statement.
For now at least, MPs will be hesitant to fire the starting gun on an election campaign until a no-deal Brexit is definitely off the table, via the requirements set out in the so called “Benn Bill”. This may mean that an election will not be triggered until the second half of October, at the earliest.
A further option for opposition MPs to force a change in government is to seek to call a vote of no-confidence. However, anti-Brexit MPs have expressed concerns that this would further eat into the little time left before the 31st of October and would still leave open the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
A final, potentially ‘nuclear’, option would be for the government to table a vote of no-confidence in itself, which given the uncertain times we live in, is certainly not beyond the pale. This may be a government which has lost the ability to govern in parliament, but until the Brexit impasse is broken, it has little choice but to soldier on.