The Tory MPs who’ve bothered to turn up to conference this week are torn between two places. They’re on a three-line whip in case anything kicks off in Westminster, where parliament will continue sitting this afternoon. Solicitor General Michael Ellis joked this morning that he was on ‘red standby’ to return to the House of Commons if there is a vote.
The Labour party is on a two-line instruction, though many of its MPs are attending the sitting to try to make a point about holding the government to account while the government is away. It’s not yet clear whether they will hold any votes, though there is a need to justify the sitting beyond appearing to debate Brexit pointlessly and without conclusion, which parliament has done plenty of over the past few years.
The Tories have been dismissing this sitting as pointless. But on Wednesday, a genuinely important piece of legislation will have its second reading in the Chamber. The Domestic Abuse Bill has been hanging on by its fingertips. It was introduced far too late by Theresa May, delayed largely because of a lack of government bandwidth to deal with anything other than Brexit, and then technically dropped by Boris Johnson when the government failed to apply for a carry-over motion which would mean it would survive prorogation. The row that ensued led to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary Priti Patel insisting that they were committed to the legislation, but opposition MPs aren’t so confident, and are particularly worried that the government might be minded to introduce a new, watered-down bill.
But this legislation will easily pass its second reading, so that’s not why Tory MPs are on red alert to whizz back to London if the opposition parties try any tricks. Of course, there are a number of Tories who’ll find it a bit easier to get back to Parliament if a vote is called on Brexit. Not all of them have bothered to go to conference. ‘Can’t be arsed,’ said one. Another said they hadn’t gone to Manchester ‘because I’m sane’. MPs have become progressively less engaged with their party’s conference over the past few years. There are no policymaking opportunities, and it costs quite a lot for MPs to attend (no-one covers their expenses). If you’ve got a young family in particular, it’s hard to justify spending around £800 to go to an event where you’re not needed and which means you get even less time with your children and partner. The images of snoozing Tory members from this year’s gathering aren’t exactly giving MPs fear of missing out, either. Even if there’s no drama in parliament this week, it might still be the case that Tory conference isn’t the most exciting game in town.