The BPA reports on the Conservative Conference in Birmingham: ‘Chuck Chequers, Boris and an upbeat PM…’

The British Ports Association is attending the Party Conferences this year and this week Policy Manager and political specialist, Mark Simmonds, has been with the Conservative Party, following the developments.

Another Sunday, another Party Conference for the BPA; in Birmingham this week with the Conservative Party. As with Labour conference a week earlier, there were many other interesting fringe meetings focussing on trade, particularly in terms of Brexit, as you might expect given the overwhelming, wall-to-wall prominence of the Conservative Government’s EU exit policy. Grassroots members were enthusiastically handing out ‘Chuck Chequers’ badges to arriving delegates and visitors. Party members were also queuing around the proverbial block to get into a room with Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg. The BPA managed to find ourselves in the middle of one of the main such events: a heavily oversubscribed ‘Leave Means Leave’ rally with Mr Rees-Mogg and the outspoken owner of Wetherspoons chain of pubs, Tim Martin, where the slogan was “no deal, no problem”. Mr Rees-Mogg made a characteristically articulate case for leaving without a deal, to the roaring delight of those in the room, although at one point he was interrupted by a minor pro-EU protest outside the venue. Mr Martin – a prominent backer of Brexit – then told the crowds that his pub chain is preparing for “clogged ports” by exploring options for buying more British beers, wines and spirits and also from other, more exotic non-EU destinations such as Australia. It was quite an atmosphere and certainly an event that will last in the memory.

Many will have witnessed the Prime Minister dancing onto the stage on the closing day to reassert the case for the Government’s central policy plank: Chequers. She managed to do so without actually saying the word and members may notice that Ministers will from now on be referring to it as a trade deal rather than ‘Chequers’, which has become a somewhat toxic label for the Cabinet.

At the start of the week, there were anonymous briefings being reported that the UK was preparing to concede a regulatory border in the Irish Sea to secure the Brexit ‘backstop’. In her speech, however, the Prime Minister said firmly that any Brexit deal that “carves off Northern Ireland, a part of this country, effectively leaving it in the EU’s Custom’s Union” would not happen. Mrs May reconfirmed her consistent view that “leaving without a deal - introducing tariffs and costly checks at the border - would be a bad outcome for the UK and the EU”, but said that the UK would not get one “at any cost” and was not afraid to leave without one and deal with the consequences. The Prime Minister and others praised the UK’s resilience and predicted the UK would cope with any short-term disruption.

In a jibe aimed at Boris Johnson, who reportedly dismissed concerns from business lobby over Brexit by saying “f*** business” earlier this year, said that instead, she wanted to “back business”. She also attacked the SNP over their fisheries policy:

“And with the UK’s biggest fishing fleets based in Scotland, let me say this to Nicola Sturgeon: You claim to stand up for Scotland, but you want to lock Scottish fishermen into the CFP forever. That’s not ‘Stronger for Scotland’, it’s a betrayal of Scotland.”

Other Cabinet Ministers in the main hall lined up to address the Party faithful throughout the week, where they also told the Government line on Brexit and the Chequers proposals. Some highlights included:

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab gave an interesting speech in which he claimed that “prophets of doom” were making “lurid predictions” about the effects of a no-deal exit from the EU, including the claim that ports will be blocked, before adding. He called for common sense, asking “why on earth would any of these things happen?” The BPA has been explaining to Ministers and officials why these things might happen for two years, but the Brexit Secretary and potential future leadership contender suggested that Brexit disruption would only happen if the EU “decided to make [it] happen … for narrow political purposes”.

Michael Gove, Environment Secretary, claimed that Brexit would mean “more fish for British boats” and that this “means that there could be millions of pounds extra earned by our fishermen”. There was also a clue towards his future intentions on the environment, saying that the Government’s planned Environment Bill will “restore nature” and “purify our air”.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s Conference speech was focussed on aviation and (passenger) rail, as Government transport policy often is. Mr Grayling did also raise some eyebrows by comparing Brexit with the aftermath of the collapse of Monarch Airlines, meaning that UK industry is adaptable and responsive to changes.

Chancellor Philip Hammond defended the Government’s Chequers proposals, saying that “over 11,000 trucks each day pass through the Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel alone carrying tens of thousands of tonnes of food, components and finished products in both directions with no more delay or bureaucracy than they would be crossing the border from England into Wales.” He said that that friction-free access must continue.

Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns announced that the Severn tolls would be scrapped earlier than planned, with a new date of 17th December 2018

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley praised the levels of inward investment and the growth in exports.

Those following the news will have seen that, as is increasingly common at Party conferences, the main hall is often empty for speeches by lesser-known Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet Ministers as members cram into tiny, boiling rooms for all manner of fringe events, lectures and rallies.

The BPA’s Chief Executive, Richard Ballantyne chaired the Maritime UK fringe event on ‘Building a Coastal Powerhouse’ which highlighted the sector’s aims to promote the role of ports and the maritime sector in driving growth in coastal areas. The prominent Westminster Committee Chairman and influential Brexiteer Sir Bernard Jenkin was at the session as the keynote speaker. In his opening remarks, the Harwich MP said that the EU Port Services Regulation is “completely mad” and also criticised the lack of accountability at the MMO when it comes to their decision making. The panel included representatives of fellow Maritime UK members, drawn from the wider maritime industry. One of the interesting points to emerge here was the interest many Conservative Party members have is in the banning of live animal exports, which was raised both there and then at other fringe meetings.

Elsewhere, the Port of Dover had Brexit Minister Suella Braverman MP at their fringe on the future of trade along with the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce. The Minister was upbeat about the ports industry and made the case for the Government’s Chequers proposals. There were strong rumours when they were first agreed that Braverman might join her former boss David Davis in resigning but here she praised the Government’s position as pragmatic and moving the negotiations forward. She called on the EU to make their specific objections and alternative proposals clear and insisted that Chequers was still alive. Adam Marshall sounded a note of caution over Brexit and called for politicians on all sides to dial down the rhetoric. In front of the media, the Port of Dover’s Head of EU Exit, Tim Reardon, also backed the Chequers Plan as they were the only proposals on the table that would keep trade flowing, saying that a ‘free trade agreement’ is ‘free’ only in that it is not taxed, as without an agreement on trade facilitation and regulatory barriers, you still need permission for it to move through a port.

The ferry carrier (and UK port operator) P&O had a prominent sponsorship presence at the Conference and UK ports group ABP organised several events themselves. Suella Braverman also spoke on one of their fringe panels, where ABP was keen to stress that their ports were Brexit-ready. They were also present at Transport for the North’s panel and hosted a popular reception for thirsty conference-goers.

Separately we also attended several sessions on environmental, nature conservation and planning where there was a strong message from Conservative MPs and others, that environmental protection, including in the marine environment, had been successful and would continue. The NGOs were a major feature at this year’s Conference, perhaps even more here than in Liverpool with the Labour Party last week. We did raise some of the challenges ports have experienced in terms of development and consenting but unfortunately, this did not appear to fit with the positive messages that politicians are keen to make on conservation and protection. Finally, we took the opportunity to attend receptions and meetings with the Scottish and Welsh Conservatives as well as the very important and popular Britain’s Beer Alliance’s ‘Drink Tank’ reception!

Watch out next week for our roundup of the SNP Conference in Glasgow.