UK party politics: The storm before the storm?

With less than six months before the UK exits the European Union, Brexit negotiations enter their hot phase. Adding to the island’s political uncertainty was 2018’s Party Conference season.  

Delegates at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool were in a good mood. The party sought to demonstrate their readiness for government. Despite presenting their programme on housing and taxes, Brexit took centre stage. Labour’s repeated emphasis that it will vote down Prime Minister Theresa May’s Chequers proposal in Parliament as it does not pass Labour’s six tests for a good Brexit deal, aggravated the uncertainty around the Brexit negotiations, as it made Chequers’ passing Parliament more unlikely. Whilst putting Prime Minister May in a bad spot, it would work out well for Jeremy Corbyn and his Party, who are scoring well in polls and might, therefore, benefit from a general election.  

Corbyn’s leadership ambitions received another boost in confidence after he met in Brussels with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier and European Commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr directly after the conference. While the Commission’s decision to agree to the meeting was widely perceived as a loss in faith in a final deal to be reached, it did not seem to harm the pace of the ongoing negotiations.  

As it is not Labour’s decision whether to have a general election, the party also agreed to support a second referendum in case of a no deal scenario. However, they do not agree on whether the question should include remain as an option or only decide on the final deal.  

Labour’s decision to keep all options open in case no Brexit deal is finalised by March 2019, including a second referendum, is a major boost for the People’s Vote campaign which has been gaining in popularity in September. The People’s Vote is a campaign group that, launched in April 2018, calls for second referendum on the terms of departure. This means that British citizens receive a chance to vote on the final deal negotiated with the EU, provided there will be any. Considering that May already refused to hold a second plebiscite, it remains to be seen how much pressure the campaign will be able to exert.  

For Theresa May, the Conservative Party Conference could have been a major disaster and some of her final days as Prime Minister. Instead, she was able to secure her position for at least a little while longer. In the run up to the conference it was widely speculated that Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would call for her replacement as result of the deep dissatisfaction with the Chequers proposal and her handling of the Brexit negotiations. However, no such demands were voiced and Theresa May balanced her way through the conference, trying to unite her party, while strongly defending her proposal against the critique of the EU. She also reaffirmed that it will either be Chequers or no deal, which in turn forecasts an interesting EU Summit on 18th and19th October, as significant progress is to be made there in view of finalising the exit deal in November. EU heads of states and governments will hold a Brexit dinner on the evening of the 17th October. 

Finally, one announcement made at the Tory party conference might add additional tension to the Brexit negotiations with the EU. Theresa May declared that her government plans a new visa regime to be introduced after Brexit. Well received by Conservatives, the scheme foresees to end free movement with the EU and limit the overall number of immigrants per year. The new system will be based solely on skills and will not discriminate between EU and non-EU citizens, following up on of a core promise from the original EU referendum.