Political fallout: the state of the parties as party conference season hits

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 29 September 2017 in Inside Politics

An icy chill descends on party leaders as autumn conference season gets underway

Theresa May - Image credit: Scott Heppell/PA

Conference season is always a tense time for prime ministers and party leaders, particularly if the preceding year hasn’t gone entirely to plan.

Movers and shakers huddle round the prosecco and the sandwich platters to decide whether they can be runners and riders in a potential leadership challenge, buoyed by inebriated colleagues who pledge their undying support (until the hangover sets in and the potential challenger is left hanging, in more than one sense of the word).

This autumn’s party conference season is likely to be no different, as Theresa May’s cloak hangs on a shoogly peg at Downing Street following her ill-fated snap general election which left the Conservatives clinging on to the Brexit cliff edge by DUP Arlene Foster’s fingertips.

Jeremy Corbyn appeared to have won himself a temporary reprieve from party infighting with his admirable runner-up medal at the election, until Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale quit just days after his less than triumphant trip north of the border, sparking another one of those leadership battles that Labour now seems to regard as an annual bloodsport.

Despite Scottish Labour politicians’ insistence that the forthcoming leadership election has nothing to do with Corbyn, the only two challengers are drawn from completely different sides of the Corbyn divide, meaning it is already being pitched as yet another referendum on the UK party leadership.


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The Liberal Democrats did their bloodletting over the summer, as Tim Farron fell on his sword and admitted that he could not reconcile living as a Christian with leading a political party.

It gave new leader Vince Cable the opportunity to grandstand over Brexit at their conference in Bournemouth last week, free from the scheming and second-guessing that has plagued his opponents.

He accused UK ministers of behaving like dictators, and called on “political adults” in the Tory and Labour ranks to join forces with him and try to reverse withdrawal from the EU.

He accused Corbyn of trying to face both ways on Brexit, insisting “he would do better to get off the fence and refurbish his revolutionary credentials”, and join the Lib Dems in “the Anti-Brexit People’s Liberation Front”.

But Corbyn is still struggling to keep his own party together, despite his re-election as leader on the eve of the last autumn conference.

A spate of Labour MPs resigned over the winter, sparking a series of unhelpful by-elections.

Former shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt resigned in January to become the director of the Victoria & Albert museum, shortly after Copeland MP Jamie Reed resigned to take a job in the nuclear industry.

Andy Burnham, who stood against Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election, was already on the way out of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet as a near shoo-in to be the first mayor of Manchester.

Corbyn ally Steve Rotheram also stood down to become the first mayor of Liverpool, suggesting the new mayoral posts contained a significant pull factor and indicating that not all of the Corbyn II walkouts were a reaction to his re-election.

Labour held on to Stoke-on-Trent Central in the by-election sparked by Hunt’s departure, with former Corbyn-sceptic Gareth Snell holding off a determined challenge by newly-minted UKIP leader Paul Nuttall.

However, the defeat to the Tories in the Copeland seat vacated by Reed sparked another round of “Corbyn must go” backbiting.

Corbyn argued he was not to blame for Labour losing a seat which they have held since the 1930s and said he was “proud” to continue as leader.

But Labour MPs said Corbyn was a major problem on the doorstep in the Cumbrian constituency, including veteran backbencher David Winnick, who urged him to consider his position (Winnick was subsequently kicked out of parliament by the Tories after 38 years in the snap general election in June).

With Labour still in navel-gazing mode, May was on firmer ground as she made her Lancaster House speech in January outlining her Brexit plan.

She warned EU leaders it would be a “calamitous act of self-harm” to punish Britain for Brexit as she threatened to walk away from talks if the deal on offer was not good enough.

She confirmed that Britain would leave the single market and would seek associate membership of the customs union after Brexit, and announced that both Houses of Parliament would get a vote on the final deal agreed between the EU and the UK.

There was also a warning to the SNP to abandon their proposal for a differentiated position that would keep Scotland in the single market after the UK leaves, insisting she would not accept a deal that left Britain “half in and half out” of the European Union.

Meanwhile, in the red corner, there were signs that Scottish Labour was slightly warming to Corbyn after his second leadership election win, when he addressed the Scottish Labour conference in February, having skipped the same gathering the previous year.

However, in a sign of things to come, he quickly found himself at odds with Scottish Labour on policy.

Dugdale unveiled her big new idea to neutralise the threat of the nationalists – federalism, the policy that the Liberal Democrats had been promoting since the days of Gladstone.

Corbyn was clearly not impressed, and there was no mention of federalism in his keynote speech.

The constitution continued to dominate amongst all parties as the Scottish spring conference season got underway.

At the Scottish Conservative conference in March, May said Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for a second independence referendum sets Scotland on a course for “more uncertainty and division” at a time when she is attempting to form a “whole UK” approach to Brexit.

“Politics is not a game,” she insisted, rather optimistically from the pulpit of a party that likes nothing better than regular reruns of their own Game of Thrones.

The SNP responded at its own conference two weeks later that if May stood in their way, Scotland would have its referendum anyway.

“Scotland’s referendum is going to happen and no UK prime minister – no UK prime minister – should dare to stand in the way of Scotland’s democracy,” said Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Westminster leader at the time, in his opening speech to the SNP conference.

As the SNP’s autumn conference approaches in mid-October, there had been mumblings about why Robertson should keep his job as deputy leader despite being rejected by voters in June.

But with no formal challenge to Robertson from anyone else within the party, he looks set to stay.

Inside a party that regularly complains about a “democratic deficit” in the UK, it does face some discontent about a democratic deficit at the top of the SNP, with some members now questioning the viability of Peter Murrell continuing to serve as party chief executive given he is also the husband of the party leader.

But at least the SNP doesn’t fight its internal battles on a national scale, like the Tories did with the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and the general election to tidy up their own Brexit mess in June 2017.

It was an election designed to silence May’s detractors, the Nats and Bremoaners in parliament who threatened to frustrate her Brexit plans at every turn.

She appeared to be in a position of strength, with Labour still fighting amongst themselves and struggling to articulate policy, and the threat of independence receding amid signs that her “now is not the time” rhetoric was finding fertile soil amongst the Scottish electorate.

But then a strange thing happened. Jeremy Corbyn suddenly became popular, particularly amongst disaffected youth who were being touted as the first generation since the war who are likely to end up worse off than their parents.

For a politician deemed unelectable, coming a close second was an admirable result and kept the centrist wolves from his door for the time being.

May was reduced to tears at losing the Tory majority in an election that she didn’t need to call, with her only consolation being a Tory surge in Scotland under a leader who apparently has no designs on her job.

The Prime Minister went to ground and doubled-down on her hard Brexit rhetoric, insisting “nothing has changed” – she is still PM and the UK is still leaving the EU on the Tories’ terms.

But the fact that the Tories had to go cap in hand for votes to the austere Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, with their questionable record on the rights of women and homosexuals, did severe damage to the liberal facelift the party underwent under David Cameron.

It also called into question the ‘Unionist’ in Conservative and Unionist Party as the deal plunged Stormont into a constitutional crisis, and threatens to undermine the Irish peace process in which the UK Government is supposed to act as an impartial referee, not an ally, paymaster and beneficiary of one of the factions.

With May trying to make the best of a bad hand, Corbyn was celebrating like he’d already won the pot. He embarked on a permanent election campaign tour, which brought him to Scotland in August.

Once again, Corbyn was found wanting on the constitutional politics that remains something of an obsession in Scotland.

Dugdale insisted her leader was “very open” to the idea of devolving immigration, but Corbyn laughed off the claim just feet away from her during a campaign trip to Labour’s former industrial heartlands of North Lanarkshire.

Dugdale resigned a few days later, citing personal reasons including the recent death of her friend Gordon Aikman, which she said had given her a new outlook on life and her ambition for the future.

Corbyn had come north insisting Scotland held the key to a future Labour government – with around a quarter of the key marginal seats he needs to secure victory at the next election in Scotland – but he left behind a party as divided as ever, at odds with London on the constitution and at odds with each other on the direction of the party.

Labour isn’t the only party veering off in different directions, though. With just a few weeks to go until the Tory conference, Boris Johnson has been accused of being a “backseat driver” in the Brexit discussions.

As Holyrood went to press, May was putting the finishing touches on her speech in Florence, which was expected to offer to pay tens of billions of pounds to the EU during a two to three-year transition deal after the UK’s formal exit in 2019 to break the deadlock in negotiations.

In a pre-emptive strike, hardline Brexiteer Boris penned a 4,000-word essay in the Daily Telegraph to revive the widely-criticised claim that quitting the EU would allow the UK to take back control of £350m a week, some of which could be used to boost NHS funding.

He also warned against paying for access to European markets after Brexit and said continued membership of the single market and customs union would make a “complete mockery” of the referendum result.

The article strayed well beyond his foreign affairs brief, and fuelled speculation that the piece was a marker for a forthcoming leadership bid.

Amber Rudd accused him of “backseat driving”, and defence minister Tobias Ellwood said there was discord in the party.

May and Johnson had an awkward reunion at the United Nations’ General Assembly in New York, where the Prime Minister attempted to reassert her authority, insisting: “This government is driven from the front.”

Johnson restated his demands for no extended “transition” period and no “extortionate” payments to Brussels.

Johnson also side-stepped a question on whether he would resign if he did not get his way, saying: “You are barking slightly up the wrong tree here.”

However, with conference fast approaching, the warm prosecco that sparked summer’s speculation of a leadership challenge is back on ice, and May could find a few cold shoulders as the autumn chill descends in Manchester.

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