Westminster Watch - September 2011

In the wake of the riots, Charles Hale and Toby Craig look ahead to the conference season.

Preparations for the party political conferences were no doubt in place when the riots struck in early August, and politicians turned their exclusive attention to the question of how to make sure they never happened again.  It showed once more how the focus in politics can change in an instant.

There will however still be some ‘business as usual’ when the Lib Dems, Labour and Tories arrive at Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester respectively.  The Bar Council will be there too, working hard to lobby, cajole and persuade parliamentarians.

For all the bluster, and there is much of that, party conferences provide an important opportunity for the leadership to connect with the rank and file and ensure that internal rifts are kept to a minimum. The Leader’s speech combines a progress report for the year gone by with a vision for the future. Each party has a week to get its message across to voters, with the pollsters closely watching on. It was the combination of George Osborne and David Cameron’s combative conference speeches which deterred Gordon Brown from calling an early election in October 2007. Both Cameron and Ed Miliband have used the conference platform to convince the party faithful that they were the right men to lead their respective parties. They are not just a sideshow.

Birmingham Bound

The Lib Dem gathering in Birmingham is first on the agenda, with the Deputy Prime Minister having more cause for optimism than he might once have hoped. The Liberal Democrats have been largely absolved from the phone hacking scandal, as it was the only one of the main parties which didn’t cosy up to News International. How interested or otherwise News International was in the Lib Dems now seems a moot point. The most openly democratic of the three conferences, the highest profile motion laid down so far concerns an inquiry into the decriminalisation of drugs, which is fairly familiar turf. There will be much handwringing about the Coalition, but the party leadership knows that it is now locked in until there are signs of economic recovery or until the election, whichever comes first. It might be a close call.

The Bar Council will be on the panel at two fringe events, with the Liberal Democrat Lawyers’ Association on legal aid and with the Financial Times on international trade.

Liverpool one year on

Ed Miliband will be celebrating his first anniversary as Labour leader in Liverpool, after what some saw as a fairly brutal act of fratricide left his older brother and favourite, David, trailing in his wake. After a difficult start to his tenure, where he seemed to be struggling for relevance, Miliband found his voice over the phone hacking scandal, quickly tapping into the public mood and wrong-footing the Prime Minister.

His handling of that issue however, affords him no more than an opportunity to make his case to a public which is simply a little more interested than it was before. The conference platform will give the Labour leader the opportunity to lay out his vision for a viable alternative to the Coalition’s cuts, ideally in such a way which does not present him as in thrall to the Unions which secured his victory in last year’s leadership contest (interestingly, he plans to weaken their voting power at conference).

In the wings, the Bar Council will be working hard to influence the Labour Justice team and members of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill Committee to advance the Bar Council’s amendments and ensure that access to justice is uppermost on parliamentarians’ minds.

Manchester melee

The biggest challenge must surely be for the Prime Minister as the Conservatives close conference season in Manchester. Possibly on the precipice of the dreaded ‘double-dip’, (the recession, rather than hungry delegates hitting the canapés), economic meltdown will be David Cameron and George Osborne’s greatest fear. They know that they can only be vindicated at the ballot box over unpopular cuts if the economy does, in fact, recover.

In the midst of this, the phone hacking scandal looms large, with Andy Coulson still facing possible charges, which risks severely undermining the Prime Minister’s judgment. But there is comfort to be found. The Prime Minister is undoubtedly at his best on the conference stage. A barnstorming, no-notes performance effectively secured him his party’s leadership and his challenge to Gordon Brown saw off the threat of an early election. Interesting times ahead.

The Bar Council will also be in Manchester, joining a fringe event with the Society of Conservative Lawyers, Prison Reform Trust and Criminal Justice Alliance to discuss the LASPO Bill.

When Parliament returns

Of course we must not forget the return of Parliament in early September before it goes into recess again for conference season. This will include further discussion of the LASPO Bill at Committee stage. The Bar Council has continued to make the case in the media, working independently and in coalition with other interest groups. The Chairman of the Bar has made the profession’s feelings known in clear terms to the Lord Chancellor; some of that correspondence is detailed elsewhere in Counsel. A crack Bill team, led by Stephen Cobb QC, continues to meet regularly, draft amendments and develop strategy to seek to ensure that the most egregious elements of the Bill (and there are many of those), are somehow kept at bay. A difficult challenge, but one to which the team is committed.

On a personal note...

A significant, if not political, landmark was reached by the Bar Council, just before the summer, as its ‘Father of the House’, Ken Craig, stepped down after 16 years’ consecutive service to the Council to take up a judicial appointment. Particularly significant to one-half of Westminster Watch; our brighter readers will no doubt figure out which half. Congratulations Dad! Now off to Birmingham...

Charles Hale is a barrister at 4 Paper Buildings and a member of the Bar Council.
Toby Craig is the Head of Communications at the Bar Council.