I’m getting heartily sick of conferences in Birmingham and Manchester. Because of the cost of accommodation many party members are put off attending. They just can’t afford it. One of the joys – if that’s the right word – of going to Bournemouth or even Blackpool was that anyone could afford go, even if they had to endure the dubious pleasure of staying in a £20 a night b & b. There were a lot of under 20 year olds at the Conservative conference last week. Christ alone knows where they stayed. I know for a fact that at that age I just wouldn’t have been able to afford to go, unless I camped out under one of the many underpasses.
In the ‘Challenge the Chairman’ session I chaired in the conference hall with Brandon Lewis on Sunday, I put this point to him. He said that the next three conferences were already booked in Manchester and Birmingham but they’re looking at what should happen after that, He said discussions were underway. Talking to a previous party chairman, he told me that the only other place that was big enough to hold a conference was Liverpool. I don’t really buy that at all.
The excuse is always that there aren’t enough beds in other places. Apparently 11,000 people attend the conference now when you add the media, lobbyists and commercial exhibitors into the mix. How come Labour goes to Brighton, then?
It is said that there were 6,000 conference representatives booked into Birmingham. Well if there were, why was it so difficult to fill the Symphony Hall? One explanation is that everyone is fed up with Death by A Thousand (very average) speeches. There’s no real debate. It’s less of a conference, more of a rally, with the great and the good talking down to “the little people”. It’s all very well adding a Q&A session on at the end of each day, but that doesn’t really address the issue. I remember the real excitement that speeches from the floor could engender. Representatives felt they had a voice, and could exert a bit of influence. Aspirant candidates could prove their worth to potential constituency parties by making the speech of a lifetime.
The party should go back to the days of an hour long debate on a particular subject, where 15-20 people could make two and a half minute speeches and then the relevant minister would wind up and respond to the debate. It would re-energise what has become a moribund conference agenda. If the hall can’t even be full for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, then the party hierarchy has to realise that they have a problem on their hands.
The other point is that if you’re holding a rally, rather than a conference, then you do actually need to rally the troops and send them away with their tails up. Gone are the days when big policy announcements are made at a party conference. Last week we had Chris Grayling announcing a couple of bypasses in Cumbria and somewhere I can’t even remember. We had the front page grabbing announcement that big companies (boo hiss) would no longer be able to make deductions from tips. And then the piece de resistance, the Prime Minister announcing…. Cue drumroll…. A Brexit Festival next April. I mean, spit roast me gently with a red hot poker.
If you were an activist going door-knocking on Saturday on the streets of Nottingham on Saturday, what exactly are you going to tell the general public? You might as well utter the words ‘strong and stable’. Party activists have been badly let down by a string of cabinet ministers who made lacklustre speeches, not aimed at the country at large but … well, I don’t know who. Most of them seem to have been designed to say as little as possible and avoid frightening and horses. Even some of the potential leadership contenders totally bored everyone.
OK. I wasn’t in the hall for every speech but I saw enough to be able to form a judgement. I thought Brandon Lewis was good and deserved a standing ovation. Gavin Williamson was perhaps a surprise to everyone in the way he delivered his speech and Dominic Raab gave the best crafted speech of the conference, even managing to provoke several people to shed a tear. Penny Mordaunt was great until she left the stage to others to explain why aid is so important – the ultimate sign of an “it’s not about me” speech, I guess.
I know this all sounds a bit whingy and whiny, but I think what I’ve said here will resonate with an awful lot of people. And not just those who remember the good old days.
I suppose I can’t write this column without mentioning Boris. I went along to his speech on Tuesday lunchtime. It was packed out, as was to be expected. I should preface what I am about to say by declaring that I thought Boris’s 4,000 word article in the Telegraph last Friday was very good indeed. Well argued, temperate and constructive. However, I found the speech on Tuesday lacklustre, uninspiring with very little new in it. I completely recognise that mine is not the majority view, but it was telling that the standing ovation was far from unanimous. I was sitting up in the Gods and up there only about half of the audience was on its feet cheering. I don’t think this was quite the speech Boris was intending to make. I think he realised that an all-out attack on the prime minister would backfire, and therefore toned it down. That was the right decision. There’s no appetite to topple Theresa May in advance of the final round of Brexit talks, although if the front page of Tuesday’s Times bears any resemblance to the truth (“May agrees curbs on trade to break Brexit deadlock: Britain prepared to stay in the Customs Union…), that may change.
I genuinely thought Theresa May’s speech was the best I have heard from a party leader since the days of William Hague who knew just how to find a conference’s ‘G spot’. Fat lot of good it did him, I suppose, but Theresa May will certainly be buoyed by the reaction to the speech. I’m told there were three main contributors to the speech – James Marshall, head of policy, Danny Finkelstein and a speechwriter called Keelan Carr. He’s the one I’m told should get the greatest plaudits.
This is an edited version of my ConservativeHome diary from last Friday