Conference Diary Sunday
The trouble with party conferences is that it is very difficult to keep tabs with the media narrative. Most of the journalists I have met so far seem completely knackered and willing the party conference season to be over. I suspect that the big story is not going to be here this week, it will be the unfurling economic situation. But that in itself represents a real opportunity for David Cameron and George Osborne to demonstrate that a Conservative government would have a well thought out approach to dealing with the crisis that is rapidly developing. I will be attending the session this afternoon and report back later.
Two very strong speeches from William Hague and David Cameron this afternoon. Hague was his rumbustuous self and Cameron did another fifteen minute off the cuff eloquent exposition of the Conservative response to the economic crisis. He spoke about the Tory plan for recovery, which is summed up in a booklet which I had better get a copy of.
In a few minutes time Boris will address the conference. Sadly I can't be in the hall to see his speech but I am told that he is going to commit to no council tax rise and also assert that "you cannot regulate your way out of a recession". I'll post more about his speech later, I hope, but I'm glad he he said this. Of course financial markets need to be regulated, but what we need - and what this government has failed to provide - is effective regulation, rather than more regulation.
Overregulation is in Labour's DNA and the Consertatives must be very careful not to fall into line with every new regulatory initiative which the Treasury or Labour Party HQ come up with. Many of them will be launched to garner positive press headlines rather than anything else, and the Tories must be prepared to speak out against them if necessary. Economic activity and growth are not spurred on by extra regulation. Quite the contrary.
Just had a chat with Eric Pickles about the new Tory commitment to encourage councils to reintroduce weekly collections. I asked him about the reaction of councillors to this. Unsurprisingly most have greeted it with huge enthusiasm. Of course, many councils of all political persuasions have introduced fortnightly collections, often because central government diktats leave them with no choice. All councils should be encouraged to improve their recycling, but when there are public health issues involved, they must take precedence. It will be interesting to see how many councils come forward and commit to reintroducing weekly collections.
Conference Diary Monday
I've just done a guest blog for the new Conservative Party Blue Blog. It's mainly about my twenty four years of attending party conferences. Here's how it starts...Lovely to see Shazia Awan's conference diary in which she describes herself as a "conference virgin". I did suggest that since this is my twenty fourth
conference the Blue Blog might title this offering as the Diary of a Conference
Slut, but that was felt to be too near the knuckle for those in the Party of a
more delicate disposition. It sparked off memories of the 2002 conference (at
least I think it was 2002...) when I was running the Politico's Bookstore stand
and Ann Widdecombe was selling one of her novels by doing a passing imitation of an East End barrow boy. "No sex, no violence, no swearing, buy your very clean novel here," she screeched to the admiring throng. Not a very good sales pitch, I thought. After all, without a good dose of sex, violence and swearing, a Conservative Party Conference wouldn't be the same, would it?
Conference Diary Monday
I must admit I was not very happy when my alarm went off at 6.30. The thought of having to vhair a fringe meeting only an hour later filled me with horror. Although I am a morning person, I just couldn;t imagine who on earth would attend a fringe at that time of the morning. When I accepted the invitation to chair it, I had assumed it was in the evening... Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised. Clearly there are more people desperate to hear about food miles and the benefits of airfreighting fresh food into the country than I had imagined, as the event attracted fifty people. It was organised by the campaign group FLYING MATTERS and among the speakers were its chairman, former Labour MP Brian Wilson, Tory MEP Nirj Deva, who had hotfooted it from the UN General Assembly in New York, and Greenpeace's Chief Policy Advisor, Benet Northcote, who, you may be surprised to know is a former Tory candidate and Wilfred Emmanuel Jones, who is Tory PPC for Chippenham and used to rejoice in the title on Britain's only black farmer. He can't any longer as there is another one!
The discussion ranged far and wide, from the arguments surrounding climate change to airport expansion, sustainable development in third world countries and British agricultural policy. Indeed, it was far more interesting than I had thought it might be, with some lively contributions from the floor. All in all, a successful fringe event, I think. Which just about made getting up at such an ungodly hour worthwhile. Almost.
Last night's fringe on the future of Scotland under a Tory government, organised by Policy Exchange went very well indeed. The room was absolutely jam packed and I reckon there were well over 125 people there. I won't rehearse the arguments here, but suffice to say that there was not a lot of love towards Alex Salmond in the room. Alan Cochrane, Scottish editor of the Telegraph put a trenchant case for the Union and even suggested the repeal of the Scotland Act.
The room seemed to be split on the desirability of that, with an equal number of people wishing to continue with the current devolution settlement, and even some who wanted to see the Scottish Parliament and Executive getting further powers. David Mundell, as you might expect, said the party would only support a referendum, on further powers if it was approved by the Scottish Parliament, but it would argue against it. The party did, however, support the Calman Commission, something Alan Cochrane clearly views with disgust. He warned Conservatives not to be wooed by Alex Salmond, who he alleged was playing the Tory Party for all he was worth.
I have never been at a fringe where there were so many people who wanted to ask questions.
Later on last night I was invited to dinner by BAA along with eight or nine others. As regular readers know, I have had some critical things to say about BAA and its airports in the past. I sat next to Tom Kelly, who is now their Director of Communications, having previously spent sic years working in Number Ten as Tony Blair's Official Spokesman. We had some interesting discussions about so-called BORIS ISLAND, the airport which might (or might not!) be built in the Thames Estuary.
I made the point that at the very least it merits a full feasibility study - and I believe Boris will announce this later this week. The general view within the airports sector is that it would be impractical and too expensive and that if politicians think protests at Heathrow are loud, they are nothing compared to what would happen here. They may be right.
However, if the Conservatives are to cancel a third runway at Heathrow - as the Guardian alleges this morning - then either further capapcity needs to be found elsewhere to we accept that the business will go to our European competitor airports. Personally, I think this would be madness, but it's a debate which needs to be had. It's a bit like the Trident issue. The government made a decision before there was a full public debate on whether the replacement of Trident really fitted into our future defence needs. We're getting this arse about face. Surely the debate should come before the decision.
There are many advantages to building a new airport and there are clearly some disadvantages too. But if Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted cannot meet capacity demands, then we need to have an informed discussion anout the alternatives.
Aviation is an incredibly important part of our economy, and whatever the envionmental movement might say, it would be a tragedy if we saw it enter a period of gradual decline. But that's where we're heading now.
Conference Diary Tuesday
Just about to have breakfast with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Her Tory conference experience has not had the best of starts. Her train left Euston at 9.40pm last night ... and it arrived in Birmingham at 4am. Apparently someone had thrown themselves on the line. A number of comments spring to mind, but all of them in very bad taste. [Slaps own wrist]
Being cocooned in a conference centre, it's not easy to monitor what is going on in the outside world. I don't know if Gordon Brown has spoken yet about the economic crisis. But I have just seen David Cameron make an unscheduled speech here in Birmingham, which was really meant for the audience outside rather than the one in the hall.
I watched it in the exhibition hall and everyone stopped what they were doing to listen. There was an eerie silence and it was almost like the family gathering round the wireless to listen to a wartime address by Churchill. Cameron struck exactly the right, reassuring, note.
He gave a warning to the banking community that there would have to be a day of reckoning but today was not that day. He offered the government the full support of the Opposition in passing the necessary legislation to help the country through the crisis. He said that tomorrow in his speech he would outline a full policy response. He even hinted - unless I misunderstood him - that a form of national government might be necessary.
We are entering a new world, both economically and politically. Many mettles will be tested.
One of the regional TV producers had a good idea of filming a skit of the Miliband banana cardboard cutouts today, and putting the theme from Banana Splits to it? Remember that from your childhood? One banana, two banana, three banana, four...
They filmed three cutouts in different parts of the conference centre but they couldn't find a fourth. Ever resourceful, they went back to the first one to find that it too had disappeared.
Tory press officers, it seems, decided to remove them following David Cameron's speech, as they undermined his serious message.
The speech of the week so far has been from Nick Herbert (well, of the ones I have seen, anyway). Eloquent, passionate and delivered without notes or using an autocue, the speech explained Conservative prisons policy in a way that made me proud to be a Conservative. I hope this doesn't sound patronising, but in terms of being a top rank frontline politician, I felt Nick came of age today. It was a stellar performance.
Our good friend Derek Draper has just been spotted in the conference centre. I know we have a big tent nowadays, but there are limits. Perhaps he has come to post comments on the blog in person...
All parties allow one or two observers to attend from their rivals, but they are normally junior officials rather than well known names. I am sure he is getting a very warm welcome.
Today has been a day of endless fringes. At lunchtime I chaired a Climate Change discussion for the Conservative Women's Organisation, which was quite a genteel occasion. Earlier this evening I spoke on why Parliament is so unrepresentative, and even got heckled. I had the temerity to disagree with Theresa May, who reckoned one reason women don't get involved in politics is because the media discuss their appearance too much. Rubbish, I said. It was the same for men. Had she not heard people discussing William Hague's baldness, David Cameron's partings or Gordon Brown's funny jaw? This provoked one woman in the audience into paroxysms. Well, I exaggerate slightly, but she certainly wasn't about to join the Iain Dale Fan Club.
Then it was on to my final fringe event in the Freedom Zone, where I chaired Tories Got Talent. I had expected the whole thing to be a disaster, but in the end there were too many people wanting to take part. It was great fun, with the real speaking talents on display. Rupert Matthew won the competition - he's number three Euro candidate in the East Midlands. He gave a brilliantly funny speech titled "Don't mention Europe - I did, but I think I got away with it. James Cleverly came second, with Shane Greer, Zehra Zaidi and Robert Cook featuring in the Top Five. I hope this event will become a regular.
Anyway, I have now driven home, and for personal reasons will be missing the last day of the conference. I will explain the reason tomorrow.