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22 October 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 8:49am

Will this year’s party conferences be cancelled for Brexit?

By Ailbhe Rea

It’s summer recess, and things are quiet in Westminster. The new team in Downing Street has erected clocks counting down to Brexit day and is holding 7.55am meetings – but MPs are on holiday, the mood in SW1 is sleepy, and there is nothing that MPs, or political journalists, can do except look ahead to the autumn, and, in the case of some MPs fearing no deal, plan their next move.  

It’s less “silly season” this summer than speculation season, as we pre-emptively discuss whether Johnson would stay on in the event of a no confidence motion, whether the Queen would get involved, whether a government of national unity is a viable option, and what other options MPs wishing to block no deal have available to them. And as Stephen discusses here, there are plenty of options. The interesting part is whether MPs will show any willingness to use them.

The latest idea to be floated in this month of anticipation is a plan by cross-party rebels to force parliament to sit through the autumn recess. They would hope, as reported in the Guardian, to amend the motion needed for parliament to break for party conferences in mid-September. This tends to be a three-week break from mid-September until early October. (This year, the Liberal Democrat conference begins on 14 September, and the last one, for the SNP, concludes on 15 October.) In that three-week period, they would then hope to seize control of parliamentary business, with the ultimate aim of forcing through a backbench bill compelling the government to request another extension of Article 50.

So does that mean conferences are cancelled? The short is answer is simply no. While MPs could cancel conference recess, the conferences themselves would – in almost all likelihood – still take place.  Aside from the huge amount of money poured into these events, and the strategic importance of conference (particularly for Labour and the Liberal Democrats) to thrash out policy ideas, it is simply too late and too risky to alienate huge swathes of journalists, party members, and cities whose hospitality trades depend on the huge influx of conference-goers for their annual profits.

Will it pass? The plans are still in progress, we hear, but it is impossible to know how much support the idea would command. If it did, it would result in a bizarre situation where one party’s MPs would be absent from the Commons at any one time in September.

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And would it work? A similar plan to force the government to seek an extension from the EU, led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin, was successfully executed in April. That was, however, ultimately with the cooperation of Theresa May. There are plenty of hoops to jump through before this plan reaches this stage. Even if conference recess is cancelled, it is possible that the government would schedule other debates in that time, without allowing these rebels to take control of business.

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