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24 September 2019updated 20 Aug 2021 9:22am

What’s going to happen to the Conservative Party Conference?

Financial considerations are likely to mean that the event goes ahead, even if parliament returns.

By Stephen Bush

Parliament will be recalled tomorrow thanks to the government’s defeat in the Supreme Court, and it is considered likely that MPs will vote to extend its sittings to last throughout the remainder of conference season.

It’s important to remember that there are actually three functions to the Conservative Party Conference. Unlike Labour, SNP, Green, Plaid Cymru or Liberal Democrat conferences, which are an important part of each party’s policy and rulemaking processes, the Tory conference has no constitutional functions – but it still has important benefits to the party.

There is the Conservative Party Conference as a money-spinner. Once a loss-leading event, the Tory party conference was revamped while David Cameron was the leader of the opposition; and through opening the conference up to exhibitors and lobbyists it now allows the party to make millions. These events come with punitive break clauses that, I’m told, mean that cancelling conference would not only cost the Conservative Party indirectly, through money it hoped to raise but did not, but also directly, through money that it had to pay out to the conference venue itself and to other service providers.

So while what happens with the Conservative Party Conference is a political decision – one minister told me that they think, but are not certain, that it will go ahead – the recommendation from CCHQ will be that it must go ahead, because if it doesn’t, they will be left with a big hole in the party coffers and a big bill to boot. 

However, while the corporate conference will go ahead, conference’s other two functions will be somewhat limited. 

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There is the Conservative Party Conference as a reward for the party’s most committed activists: a place where they can attend and ask questions in political debates at the conference fringe, hear their favourite MPs speak, and meet like-minded people.

There is precious little reward for being a Tory activist – they have limited rights over the selection and reselection of MPs, and can pick the final candidate for the leadership, but that’s about it. This is why this bit of the conference is vitally important, particularly as these activists are likely to be asked to go and knock on doors and campaign in late November through to early December. But its effectiveness will be lessened, too. People are going to really struggle to see their favourite commentators and politicians if their favourite commentators and politicians are tied up in London, where parliament will be sitting.

However, activists will still be able to gain some enjoyment from conference’s third function: as rally for the television screens back home.

Cabinet ministers and the leaders of the party outside parliament – the metro-mayors, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, and so on – will still address the conference hall, though in the case of ministers they will be likely be jetted in and out, and some may have to be cancelled.

So while it will be a smaller, duller affair, there will still be a Conservative Party Conference.

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