Why Labour won't back a recess for Tory conference

The opposition has interpreted the Supreme Court ruling as an instruction for Parliament to keep sitting - but has no intention of disrupting the Conservatives' trip to Manchester.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

One of the unintended consequences of Boris Johnson's decision to prorogue Parliament is that his party is now afflicted with a big headache over just what will happen to its conference, which kicks off in Manchester on Saturday. 

A key plank of the government's case for suspending parliament was that three of the five weeks would have seen the Commons vacant for the annual conference recess anyway. Now it has been voided, the Tories face holding a conference while the House sits. That is a considerable logistical challenge that no major UK-wide governing party ever has to grapple with (the SNP, whose conference traditionally takes place the week after the Commons returns from its September recess, schedule theirs to coincide with Holyrood's parliamentary recess).

So it is no surprise that ministers would much prefer the Commons to vote for a three-day recess so that Conservative MPs and ministers could attend their conference without fear of having to return abruptly to London. And they had good reason to believe that Labour, who could easily swing a vote in favour of a recess if it whipped its MPs to do so, might grant them their wish. No matter how fractious things get between the government and opposition, their whips' offices more often than not manage to pay each other this sort of courtesy through the usual channels.

But when the government brings forward a recess motion tomorrow morning, Labour MPs will vote against it. The leadership did not accede to the request for a recess. Why? For Nick Brown, the answer is simple: sources say that as far as they are concerned, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament ought to be sitting, and it is not Labour's place to overrule them. It's certainly true that it would make very little political sense for them to work with the Conservatives to stop the house from sitting less than a week after it returned from prorogation, an episode they have made a great deal of hay from.

In response, Downing Street has publicly accused the opposition of making "businesses in Manchester suffer". But that is something nobody in Labour has any real intention of doing. Lost to prorogation were several pieces of non-contentious government business that command cross-party support that Labour sources say could very easily fill next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and pass unimpeded regardless of the non-presence of Tory MPs: the Domestic Violence Bill, the Animal Welfare Bill, and four statutory instruments on Northern Ireland, among other legislative loose ends. And Mark Spencer and Jacob Rees-Mogg have been privately assured by those familiar with the thinking of opponents of no-deal that no "funny business" was planned for next week.

That the government has chosen not to take those words on trust is a sign of just how severely the Brexit process has strained the working relationships that keep parliament ticking over.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

Free trial CSS