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Thursday, Dec 08, 2022

Fears of parliamentary ‘paralysis’ as Queen’s funeral leaves parties in limbo

Mourning has halted debate just when the opposition wanted to put pressure on new PM – but Labour conference will go ahead
Labour will go ahead with its autumn conference later this month, as officials, advisers and politicians from all parties attempt to balance paying their respects to the Queen with avoiding a period of political paralysis.

The Queen’s death and period of mourning has come at a moment of acute political tension, with concerns over the behaviour of Liz Truss’s new administration in Whitehall and significant gaps in the details of her energy price cap, set to cost well over £100bn.

Meanwhile, Truss is yet to complete all her ministerial appointments, with some serving ministers said to be only temporarily reprieved in their jobs.

Opposition parties and campaigners said they were targeting the immediate resumption of political debate after the Queen’s funeral on Monday 19 September.

Labour’s conference is due to start just six days later, but officials have decided that the gathering should go ahead as planned and include tributes to the Queen. The conference is a key moment for Keir Starmer to take on Truss after she became prime minister last week.

Senior Labour figures have taken the view that they will not be thanked if they fail to hold the new government to account once the period of mourning is over, with basic questions remaining over how Truss’s energy bailout will be delivered and paid for. Concerns are also emerging in the business world over the short-term nature of the package designed to help companies deal with energy costs.

“I don’t think Truss has even finished making her ministerial appointments yet,” said one Labour frontbencher. “There’s complete paralysis. Nothing is really going to happen before the funeral, but then I think we’ll get back to the normalities of government and parliament.”

The Liberal Democrats last night cancelled their conference which was due to start on 17 September. “Given the date of the funeral and period of national mourning, we have decided to cancel our conference,” a spokesperson said.

It is also understood that talks are taking place for the early return of parliament after the conference season. While the government will need to lay out emergency legislation for its energy price cap plan, opposition parties are concerned about the need to scrutinise plans that remain vague in detail.

Parliament had been set to return from the party conference season on 17 October. However, some want MPs to return a week earlier – at the same time as the House of Lords – while others want some parliamentary time squeezed in later this month.

Details of the energy plan were due to be unveiled in a fiscal statement this month by the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, but that may also now be delayed until October. There is also hidden turmoil among officials in the Treasury after the immediate decision by Truss and her new chancellor to sack Tom Scholar, the department’s most senior civil servant.

His removal was one of Kwarteng’s first acts and had been planned by Truss and her team. Scholar had been involved in drawing up the response to the financial crisis and advised former chancellor Rishi Sunak through the Covid response.

Scholar’s departure is seen in Whitehall as the loss of a figure with the experience needed to deliver an energy package, set to be one of the biggest government programmes in peacetime.

Unions are also planning to restart industrial action in the days after the funeral for pay increases that match inflation. There is concern within the movement about the impact that delays and cancellations of events have had on businesses and workers. Some are planning to call for compensation for those most affected.

The TUC has already postponed its annual gathering that was set to take place this weekend. Attendees have been told that it has been delayed until next month. However, even that decision was questioned by some in the union movement, who believe there is now an urgent need for the gathering as cost of living issues bite. “Respect is right, but people won’t stop being poor for the next 12 days,” said one official.

The timing and tone of the restart of combative day-to-day politics is being considered carefully. “It is very difficult and no one wants to be the first to move,” said one political insider. “With parliament not sitting, the funeral will be the watershed. It certainly shouldn’t be longer than that and conferences should not be cancelled. There are lots of difficult judgments at the moment. No one wants to be disrespectful, but there comes a point when we have to get on with life.”

The Conservative party’s conference is scheduled for the beginning of next month, making it the most likely to go ahead. It could, however, become the forum for early Tory disquiet over Truss’s leadership.

Conferences are also cash generators for parties, so they would take a financial hit from cancellation.
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