“What is going on with the conference recess?” asked Valerie Vaz during Jacob Rees-Mogg’s first outing for Business Questions as Leader of the House. She sounded exasperated, and who can blame her? After all, it was the sixth week in a row she asked the question. And it was the sixth week that she was fobbed off. So what is going on?
Normally conference recess dates are bundled together with the dates of other recesses and tabled earlier in the parliamentary session. In 2018, the recesses for the forthcoming summer, conference, November and Christmas were approved on March 20th. In 2017, summer and conference went together on June 22nd (after the general election). In 2016, a whole batch for Easter, Whitsun, the Brexit referendum, summer, conference, November, and Christmas was approved on March 17th. But this year, on June 24th, summer recess was tabled alone. On July 18th, Vaz queried if the House would be sitting throughout September. She was told by Theresa May’s outgoing Leader of the House that this would be a matter for the new prime minister.
Enter Jacob Rees-Mogg on July 25th:
“The hon. Lady asked about the conference recess. She knows that recesses are a matter for this House to determine. No doubt a proposal will be made through the usual channels, but I imagine that it would be convenient for Members to be able to attend their own party conferences. That is what has happened previously, and it tends to be to everybody’s benefit.”
We might not be familiar with the Member for North-East Somerset putting forward platitudes, but if one perhaps has something to hide then piffle must occasionally be deployed.
We have reached a point where the parliamentary battle over Brexit has turned into the most delicate game of chess, in which one move might precipitate a cascade. The smallest procedural misstep could have immense consequences and result in a course of action either side is trying to avoid.
The worst outcome for Boris Johnson is this: to lose a vote of confidence and the 14-day period elapse, to want to call an election for October 31st or thereafter to try to ensure a no-deal Brexit, but then be compelled by legislation to extend Article 50 beyond the date of the election called, (with the EU granting an extension). This would spell big trouble for Boris; it would mean having to go to the polls before the scheduled exit day.
If the conference recess had been in place over the summer, it would have made it clear to his opponents exactly when to strike. Based on the dates of the party conferences – and by comparison to previous years – the House ought to rise on September 12th and return on October 8th.
Suppose a vote of no confidence is passed on September 4th. The 14-day period ends on September 18th. An election is called for October 31st with Parliament dissolving, by law, 25 working days before polling day on September 26th.
But due to the recess, the House would only have seven sitting days in which to take control of the order paper and force through a Cooper/Letwin style bill to avert no deal. And this it will be able to do, facilitated by the Speaker using Standing Order 24 for an emergency debate that allows the necessary substantive motions.
The two-pronged attack of a no-confidence vote with extension legislation is the best chance the anti no-deal cabal have to get their way. The Prime Minister could legitimately ask the Queen to refuse to give assent to a forced extension bill, but not if he has lost the confidence of the House. A vote of no confidence alone would not avert a no-deal Brexit, as the Prime Minister has control over the election date, and a replacement unity government is unlikely.
The uncertainty over recess then looks to be creative obfuscation by the Government in order to lull the plotters into believing they have more time than they do to act. Expect some creative leaks over the coming weeks about conference recess being cancelled altogether, and then for the adjournment motion to be tabled suddenly, after all, in the second week of September.
Alexander Pelling-Bruce is a political researcher