Conference Preview: Uncertainty and division colour preparations for Conservative Party Conference

By September 27, 2019 UK

In the wake of the bruising Supreme Court ruling that his decision to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, Boris Johnson is currently preparing for what looks set to be a very challenging first Conservative Party Conference as Leader, with the event taking place despite MPs rejecting the motion for the usual Parliamentary recess over the Conference period. As such, given that Parliament will be sitting, Conservative MPs will have to apply for permission from the whips to be absent from the House if they wish to attend.

An uneasy goodwill truce is in place with the Opposition, with an unofficial agreement that they will not take advantage of the fact that the Government will be in Manchester in order to advance hostile policy by taking control of the order paper again through an SO24. That being said, goodwill is in short supply in Parliament at the moment, with opposition MPs condemning the Government’s Brexit strategy, the decision to prorogue Parliament and Boris Johnson’s recent dismissal of MPs’ safety concerns. Leaders of opposition parties are reportedly set to decide on Monday whether to force the Government to publish more potentially compromising documents, such as the Government’s legal advice on prorogation, or to bring forward legislation to force the Prime Minister to seek an extension to Article 50 before the 19th October.

In this context, it is unclear how many Conservative MPs will attend Conference. There are allegedly conflicting messages coming out of number 10 about whether the Government wants the bulk of MPs to stay in Westminster to stave off any threats from the Opposition or whether they should all go to Manchester in a show of strength. Whatever the case, any MPs in Manchester will be braced to return to London at the drop of a hat and may end up having to shuttle between the cities each day.

Despite the turmoil, given the main political parties are now firmly on an election footing, Conference remains an important opportunity for the Prime Minister to set out his stall in terms of eye-catching domestic policy. The message is likely to be that if Britain leaves the EU on the 31st October, as promised by the Prime Minister, the Government will focus efforts and funding on delivering improvements to public services, with the aim of resonating with the portion of the electorate who are tired of Brexit dominating the agenda. Boris Johnson could also seek to dial down some of the more controversial rhetoric around Brexit that he has used in recent times and use his speech at Conference to try to unite his very divided Party around a positive domestic message; however, healing the wounds of the Conservative Party will be a lengthy and difficult process.