Party conferences and Brexit

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Party conference season presented an opportunity for each of the political parties to set out their responses to the EU referendum result. Unsurprisingly, there were major differences between their respective visions for the post-Brexit landscape. Whilst the Liberal Democrat and Green leaders called for a second EU referendum, and the SNP promised a draft bill for a second independence referendum, at the Conservative conference the Prime Minister vowed to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Brexit. Ailsa McNeil offers an overview.

Following a long summer of uncertainty, with only Theresa May’s vague and much repeated statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ offering any semblance of clarity, conference season was a chance for Britain’s political parties to outline their post-referendum strategy. Of the main UK-wide parties the Greens were first to hold their conference, from 2–4 September, followed by UKIP on 16 and 17 September and the Liberal Democrats from 17–20 September. Labour’s conference was held in Liverpool from 25–28 September, whilst the Conservatives gathered in Birmingham from 2–5 October. Finally, the SNP conference took place in Glasgow from 13–15 October.

Conservative

Brexit dominated the Conservative conference. As well as the usual party leader’s speech to close the conference, Prime Minister Theresa May also delivered a speech focused on Brexit on the opening day.  She firmly dismissed the demands for a second referendum and promised to ‘get on with the job’ of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, pledging to invoke Article 50 by the end of March 2017.

In defiance of a legal challenge aiming to prevent the government from triggering Article 50 without parliament’s consent and of a large number of MPs and peers who have called for a parliamentary vote, the Prime Minister told the conference that it is ‘up to the government to trigger Article 50 and the government alone’. Although not unexpected –  in August she indicated that no parliamentary vote would be held – May’s stance is at odds with a considerable body of legal opinion, contending that such a move would both expand the royal prerogative arbitrarily and subvert parliamentary democracy (by undermining the express intention of the legislature, as expressed in the European Communities Act 1972).

May was also disparaging of claims that the devolved administrations should play a decisive role in the Brexit process. She told her conference: ‘we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom’. The accuracy of this assertion remains unclear; earlier this month the High Court in Belfast heard arguments from a cross-party coalition of politicians who claim that the permission of the Northern Ireland Assembly is required for Britain to leave the European Union. Their case rests on the notion that in devolving power the UK has relinquished its sovereignty over constitutional matters and so cannot make this type of decision unilaterally.

The Prime Minister also announced that restricting immigration is her key priority when it comes to negotiating with the other member states, a strong indication that her government will pursue a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit and may be unwilling to compromise on free movement. This represents a worrying development for both Northern Ireland and the Republic, raising the possibility a ‘hard border’ between the two states. The Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, has, however, said that it is a ‘high priority for the government that we do not see border controls coming into place’.

Finally, May announced her government’s intention to present parliament with a ‘Great Repeal Bill’, to be included in the 2017 Queen’s speech. The proposed bill will repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and transfer existing EU law to British statute, effective from the day Britain leaves the European Union. The existing EU law could then be amended (possibly with limited parliamentary input), although May was insistent that this would not damage the standard of rights protection enjoyed by UK citizens at present.

Labour

Brexit was a glaring omission from Labour’s conference agenda. Ostensibly its absence was a strategic choice following the barrage of criticism Jeremy Corbyn faced for his efforts to persuade the electorate to ‘Remain’. In the wake of a difficult year, concluded by a second leadership contest, Corbyn needed to demonstrate authority and rally support, best done beyond the shadow cast by his referendum campaigning.

Despite the absence of any session specifically focused on Brexit, Corbyn did briefly outline Labour’s position in his leader’s speech, making it clear that his party would oppose a Brexit that jeopardised workers’ rights. The Labour leader said there were ‘red lines on employment, environmental and social protection and on access to the European market’. Elsewhere Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, announced that a Labour government would ‘make up any shortfall in structural funding into the 2020s and beyond’ and would also protect funding for peace and reconciliation projects in Northern Ireland.

SNP

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon used her conference to deliver a hostile retort to Theresa May’s plans announced the previous week, dubbing them ‘xenophobic, closed, inward looking, discriminatory’. She declared her intention to hold another independence referendum if the government persists with its uncompromising approach and promised to publish a draft referendum bill for such a vote. Anticipating the unionist response to this announcement, Sturgeon was clear that a second referendum was required ‘not because the 2014 results has not been respected… [but] because the promises made to Scotland in 2014 have been broken’. The First Minister said that ‘Scotland must have the ability to choose a better future’ and indicated that an independent Scotland would resist leaving the EU, saying: ‘we intend to stay at its very heart, where Scotland belongs’. Sturgeon also announced that SNP MPs will vote against the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ in the House of Commons and that her party’s MSPs would ‘assert the right of the Scottish Parliament to have its say’. However, she fell short of confirming that the SNP would seek to vote down any legislative consent motion relating to the legislation.

Liberal Democrat

In his keynote speech, which was undoubtedly a bold appeal to Remain voters, the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron reaffirmed his party’s commitment to the EU, a project he is ‘still utterly convinced’ Britain should continue to be a part of. Farron called for a second referendum on the negotiated terms of Brexit, leaving open the possibility of the UK remaining in the European Union if these are rejected. In doing so he christened the Lib Dems as the pro-EU party, which their leader hopes will allow them to offer a clear alternative to the Labour Party and the Conservatives at the next general election.

This proposal, although overwhelmingly endorsed by Liberal Democrat members at the conference, was met with some criticism within the party ranks. Former leader Lord Ashdown appeared to be sceptical of the logic of another vote and Vince Cable, Business Secretary during the coalition, suggested that it ‘raises a lot of fundamental problems’. He mused, ‘What happens if you win? Is that binding? Do you have to do a third?’ The party’s, stance on Europe also encouraged two of their peers, Baroness Manzoor and Baroness Nicholson, to defect to the Conservatives. Baroness Manzoor, previously the Lib Dem spokesperson for work and pensions in the Lords, was explicit on the reasoning behind her decision. She said: ‘I could not support the leadership of a party that calls itself democratic and then refuses to acknowledge the will of the people in a referendum’.

Green

The Green Party also demanded a vote on the principles of any deal agreed between the UK and the EU member states. For co-leaders Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas, this democratic longstop is required to safeguard the environmental protections and workers’ rights the EU guarantees. In a measured response that both accepted the result and acknowledged the closeness of the vote on 23 June, Lucas said that her party could not accept a deal that doesn’t ‘offer hope and security to both those who voted to Leave and those who voted to Remain’.

UKIP

At UKIP’s conference in Bournemouth substantive policy pronouncements were thin on the ground. In a speech that contained very few specifics Diane James, the newly elected (and now former) UKIP leader, cast aspersions on the possibility that the government might settle for ‘Brexit-lite’ and reiterated the UKIP mantra that Britain must ‘control’ its borders and reclaim the sovereignty devolved to Europe. Aside from this blithe commitment to ensure the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU make no concessions to the Remain camp, the UKIP conference revealed little about their policy agenda. Instead, it was an occasion to celebrate the referendum result and pay tribute to Nigel Farage, leader of the party for the six years preceding the EU vote.

Concluding thoughts

Party conference season has demonstrated that there are major differences between each party’s response to June’s EU referendum result. It is now more that clear Theresa May’s government will pursue a so-called ‘hard Brexit’, but this approach lacks support from most of the other main parties. The SNP’s stance may pose the greatest difficulty for the government going forward, given the threat of a second independence referendum. We are still at a very early stage of the process and it will be fascinating to see how the party positions develop over the coming years.

About the author

Ailsa McNeil is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.

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