Atlas Director Charles Napier offers his reflections from the Labour Party conference 2019
Well never has a cliché been more true – this was most certainly a conference of two halves.
The first half was a torrent of negative news, bitchy briefings and deep policy splits. Starting with an attempted coup to get rid of Deputy Leader Tom Watson, orchestrated by Momentum’s Jon Lansman, followed by arguments in the Shadow Cabinet over Brexit policy and a certain amount of disbelief at some of the more extremist policies.
But at 10.36am on Tuesday, the whole mood of the conference turned on a sixpence, as Lady Hale gave her devastating judgement on Boris Johnson’s attempted prorogation. All of a sudden, all splits and arguments were forgotten and Corbyn rode the wave, bringing forward his appearance to give one of his best speeches as Leader, finally managing to roll the ball into an empty net as he laid into the Prime Minister. Even the weather played its part, turning from lashing rain and heavy wind into beautiful sunshine as the announcement came out and Corbyn prepared to speak. It was an extraordinary turn around and it meant that, save for Corbyn’s speech, the conference was effectively over from that moment.
There is no doubt that the Leadership will not have been able to believe its luck and will consider that it papered over the cracks from what would otherwise have been seen to be a pretty dismal conference. Behind the scenes, it was a bit of a free for all at the fringe meetings. Shadow Cabinet Ministers seemed perfectly happy to have a go at each other and others at will. In the Politico interview, Keir Starmer was openly upset about the Brexit policy that was voted on and also disagreed with the private schools policy. Perhaps because he wasn’t the only one on both counts, it wasn’t widely remarked upon at the time.
At a gambling fringe, Tom Watson made a joke about betting on how long he would be Deputy Leader and said that he had a whole host of jokes prepared about Jon Lansman that he was going to deploy for the rest of the week. But in the end, catching the mood correctly, he decided to drop the jokes from what would have been his main speech on the Tuesday, to allow Corbyn to give his speech and demonstrate party unity following the Supreme Court ruling. There is no doubt Watson’s speech would also have been full of thinly-veiled barbs at various senior Labour figures, which would have dominated the Wednesday morning headlines, so for him to drop it was another victory for the Labour leadership arising from the SC judgement.
Overall, it was a strange old conference that will be quickly forgotten, which perhaps is just as well from a Labour point of view. That may seem a strange thing to say, considering how much policy was announced and how it was billed as a pre-election conference designed to highlight Labour’s radicalism and policy offer. But, extraordinary events overtook ordinary politics and who’s to say that next week’s emasculated Conservative conference won’t spring some further surprises that could even beat this week’s?