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27 September 2019

Why the Conservatives’ belligerent rhetoric could weaken them

A generous tone on Brexit would be more popular and less corrosive to public discourse. 

By Stephen Bush

Talk about stealing Jeremy Corbyn’s clothes: in addition to majoring on more money for the NHS and more cash for the police, the Conservatives will hold a conference without most of their MPs present after parliament voted against holding a three-day recess for the occasion.

There has never been any question that the Conservatives’s annual gathering would go ahead come what may: since the David Cameron-Andrew Feldman era it has become a regular moneyspinner for the party and to cancel it would have left them on the hook for the costs — without the boost to party funds from actually holding the thing. And as Labour has demonstrated in 2016, 2017, and 2018, you can have a successful conference without many of your MPs present. Indeed, the SNP’s conference almost always takes place when parliament is sitting as it coincides with the recess at Holyrood. 

MPs will largely use the time to conclude important cross-party legislation such as the Domestic Violence Bill, to find ways to further safeguard the Benn act and to shut off possible routes that Boris Johnson could use to follow the letter and not the spirit of the law. One option, touted by Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, is to move forward the date that the extension request must be acted upon, to give MPs more time between then and exit day if the government does do something untoward. 

Something that Geoffrey Cox was right about in the House on Wednesday is that the problem with this parliament is that it cannot agree on a way forward. It doesn’t want to revoke Article 50, it doesn’t want to stop Brexit, it doesn’t want the withdrawal agreement, and it doesn’t want a no-deal Brexit. Sooner or later — and Corbyn has now said explicitly that he wants the election to kick off as soon as the extension has been secured — a new parliament must be found.

The only way to break the deadlock is a parliamentary majority for one side or another. The message that only a vote for Cameron would bring an end to the chaos didn’t work too badly for the Conservatives in 2015. The only Brexit proposition that commands majority support, among Remainers and Leavers, is that they want the issue to go away. A revived version of Cameron’s “just six Conservative gains will make this go away” would be more popular and less corrosive to public discourse than “death threats will continue until morale improves” the preferred line to take from Dominic Cummings.

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The reason for the change is that Cummings is more comfortable adopting a belligerent position than a generous one. But just because this government is happier picking a fight than extending an olive branch it doesn’t mean that its strategy is necessarily an upgrade on the one that secured them a majority in 2015.

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