Wednesday, 6 October 2010

My little conference diary

Party conferences enbubble you.  For at least twenty hours a day you are immersed in politics, policy, gossip and meetings.  You make of it what you will but experiences tend to converge on one simple fact: whether MP, journalist, party worker or activist, you are knackered.

I do not know how the hacks that cover all three conferences do it.  I walked from the hotel to the ICC this morning with a worldly-wise Guardian journalist who had the weary look of a man yearning to return to the normal routine.

The lobbyists, however, seem to thrive on it.  Thirsty, rapacious networking is now part of the party conference furniture.   Fringe events were dominated by representatives from interest groups, not interested party members.  This is sad but a feature of being in Government, I suppose.  I wonder if it was the same in Liverpool?

So, here is my little conference diary.

Sunday, 2nd October

The drive up to Birmingham from Richmond was horrible.  The M40, which seems to be uphill, flowed like a river.  It took nearly four fraught hours.  The hotel was pleasant enough.  Room wiffed of an old people's home for a bit but improved with aeration.  The ICC is only twenty minutes away but it being a ghastly barren neighbourhood of car parks and automotive fitters and derelict warehouses - not to mention the disgusting weather - a taxi was in order.

Arrived at ICC too late for the conference opening but saw Lord Young deliver a warming little account of his review into elf & safety laws.  Typical Daily Mail anecdotes (the Italian restaurant that made the customer light his own Flaming Sambucca - though his lordship misspoke it as an "osso bucco") but it sounds a comprehensive study and I hope it is thoroughly adopted.

Weather still foul so loathe to venture far.  TRG Mainstream Conference reception was fine, even if they couldn't find enough glasses to begin with.  Some warm white wine drunk, which became a feature of the conference fringe.

The event of the evening, judging by the crowds at the door, was Open Europe's Is the Channel wider than the Atlantic?, chaired by the FT's Gideon Rachman and featuring former Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, the Tory MEP Dan Hannan, and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague.  Quite the line-up, hence the interest. I had to stand at the back. Good contributions, particularly by John Bruton and Carl Bildt. Hannan delivered his typical rhetorical flourishes but his Anglosphere analysis was unconvincing.

Briefly met the PM in the Hyatt lobby later on.  He said hello to RW and gave me a nod and a smile.  Yes, I might have gone just a little bit weak at the knees.

But not as much as I did in buying a round of two wines and a G&T at the bar. Cost? £22.

Nightingales later for Conference Pride, on behest of a good friend that part-owns the club.  Nick Herbert and Iain Dale were there.  Stayed for a bit of S-Club 7 then back to Hyatt lobby.

Bedtime: 3am.

Monday, 3rd October

Rose reluctantly at 7.30 to get to the New Statseman sponsored fringe event at a city centre Starbucks - 'Big Brands and the Big Society'.  Real novelty factor.  Well set-up, Starbucks coffee on tap, croissants, fruit...  Nick Hurd, minister for civil society, was there to describe as best as possible at this time of the morning what the Big Society means.  The assembled crowd of lobbyists and third sector professionals weren't totally convinced, I don't suppose, but I didn't believe that many people there were Tory members, so hardly surprising.  Spencer Neale was trying to flog something at the end but I can't remember what because I was stocking up on croissant and banana.

Weather the complete opposite from yesterday.  Clear blue skies, very refreshing.

Had some lunch at a Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party fringe meeting.  David Mundell, a Scotland minister and our only MP in North Britain, was there.  Solid if uninspiring.  Annabel Goldie, party leader in Scotland, gave an okay speech but was significantly more impressive when answering questions off the cuff.  Except for when I asked her what the party would be doing next May with both the Scottish Parliament elections and the AV referendum on the same day.  Astonishingly, she indicated that the party would be doing nothing because "we believe that people have already made up their minds" on AV so the focus will be purely Scottish policy.  I'm not so sure.  Saying that, AV would help us in Scotland.  A friendly face was there in George Kynoch, and I met a couple of our former candidates, Alberto Costa and Alistair Campbell.  The mood is outwardly positive but inwardly frustrated.  How will the party break through in Scotland?  No one has delivered a satisfactory answer so far.  It will take some years yet.

Environment and Climate Change session in the Symphony Hall was disappointingly drab and sparsely attended.  Conservative grassroots still uninterested in these things, it seems.

I wanted to go to a fringe event on 'Can we afford the railways?' (incidentally, yes, and they need more investment if we are to get people out of cars and on to trains - renationalisation shouldn't be ruled out).  However, in typical conference fashion, a quiet couple of hours was followed by a manic period of multiple appealing appointments, so the railways missed out to the Carlton Club reception in the Hyatt.  A promise is a promise.  Good attendance.  New Nuneaton MP, Marcus Jones, joined up.  I worked a bit with Marcus during the election and have seconded his club membership.  Excellent local MP and great company.

It did mean I missed out on the Scottish Conservatives reception next door, attended by the PM, but two Scottish events in one day might have been flying the saltire too high!  Hurried over to the Banking Hall, home of solicitors Wragge & Co, for a very good TRG debate on the state and direction of the coalition, with TRG vice-president Robert Buckland MP, Charles Hendry (minister for energy), Dominic Grieve (Attorney-General) and former mayoral candidate Steve Norris (always good value) on the panel.  Overwhelmingly positive comments about the coalition.  Charles Hendry was effusive in his praise for colleague and boss Chris Huhne.  When asked about 2015, he claimed that "we haven't got a clue" how the election will work.  Personally, I think that's a bit of a front and it is becoming increasingly clear that there will have to be some accommodation with the Lib-Dems.  We will both be defending the same record, after all.

One good TRG curry later (third free meal of the day!), met RW back at the Hyatt.  Went to ConHome/Save the Children fringe in ICC, where IDS spoke passionately about child poverty.  Some suspicion that he slurred a bit, saying "objection" instead of "objective".  Nevermind.  Even if so, his Lazarus like re-birth is cause for some celebration.  His welfare reforms being trailed in the media are radical and ever so necessary, and they are the fruit of many years of hard work.

On way to the Spectator party, bumped into Chief Whip and Nicholas Soames.  Bizarre moment when girl at the front door said "we don't have a Patrick McLoughlin on the list".  RW reminded her that he was the Chief Whip and in we went.  Saw George K again in good spirits.  David Davis was relaxed and on good form.  Chloe Smith infectiously cheerful. Chatted to Sam Gyimah about tuition fees and general HE stuff.  Headed back to a heaving Hyatt lobby afterwards.  Held back on the drinks but somehow still found myself nattering away at 3am.

Bedtime: 4am.

Tuesday, 4th October

Another early alarm call in time for a complimentary breakfast, this time provided by the British Retail Consortium and the Food & Drink Federation in the ICC, at the 'Securing Britain's Food Future' fringe event.  Jim Paice, agriculture minister, was the Government presence on the panel.  Another depressing series of vested interests raising their hands at the Q&A but Mr Paice gave a firm thumbs up to my comment about the amount of good food that is wasted because supermarkets won't sell things like bendy carrots.  Mr Warburton from the FDF tried to twist my question into an answer about sell-by dates and permitted loaf sizes for his breads.  Looked a bit of an odd response.

So they say there's no such thing as a free lunch?  Second in two days at the 1994 Group's fringe on free markets for universities.  Really welcome fruit salad (canapes, sandwiches, and Welsh cakes from the Asda trade stand doesn't constitute the most nutritious of diets).  New NUS president, Aaron Porter, was on the panel.  Admittedly, I haven't always been the nicest of commentators towards him on here or on Twitter, and he portrayed his customary stubbornness today, but probably won me over on personality and appearance (as Wes Streeting did in a similar setting last year).

He was joined on the panel by a very pleasant man from the QAA and Bernard Jenkin.  The topic aroused big debate between panellists (especially Porter and Jenkin) and from the floor.  I managed to have most of the panel agreeing with me that the Government should consider the Liberal Democrat policy of a National Bursary Scheme to simplify the over-complicated framework of institution-specific financial aid that exists today.  I told Aaron Porter that with proper financial aid in place, he really shouldn't be worried about tuition fees rising.  His willing and enthusiastic support for a NBS that would aim to encourage needs-blind admissions, seemed to suggest that he isn't as opposed to a fee rise as appears to be the case - or is that just wishful thinking?

Had a free pint of Timothy Taylor's and some good nibbles at a Mitchell & Butler sponsored APPG for Beer event in the early evening before a quick meeting in the ICC, then on to a curry supper with Zac and the Richmond crowd.  Followed that with Ken Clarke's legendary midnight reception, celebrating the TRG's 35th birthday, where prosecco (NB: not Champagne) was served in healthy (sic?) quantities.  The only downsides were the overwhelming heat in the small room and the theft of my pack of conference papers and newly purchased tie.  Encouragingly, the TRG events this year have been massively popular (50 new members signed up tonight).  After years of being bullied into the background, One Nation Toryism is resurgent in the party and a heartwarming thing that is too.

Relatively early night.  Hyatt lobby much quieter than Sunday and Monday so I turned in at the respectable time of 1.30am.

Wednesday, 5th October

A lie-in!  Until 8.30am at least.  Another clear, sunny morning.  Walked in to the ICC with the Guardian's associate editor, purely by chance, and talked about the 'new brutalism' of Birmingham's unfortunate and misguided architecture.

A sedate morning.  Symphony Hall for Dr Fox's speech on defence.  He highlighted the appalling state of the defence budget as bequeathed by Labour and cheered the audience by affirming that Trident would be renewed.  Only black spot was a completely unnecessary 5-minute monologue by our former candidate in South Shields and CWF officio.  She seemed to be trying to criticise the coalition Government for being apparently soft on defence but it came across as a nonsensical attack on the Defence Secretary.  Heckles and boos.

William Hague followed with the spelling out of the Government's 'distinctive British foreign policy'.  An important announcement that climate change will be treated as an integral part of the foreign policy agenda got a lukewarm reception.  Only a handful of us clapped.  Shows how far Tory members have to go yet in this area. Coffee afterwards with RW and others, re-purchased my purple tie, plus another, grabbed some more Asda Welsh cakes for fuel, then returned to the hotel to get the car and make the drive back to Richmond.

Left early partly to avoid the post-conference traffic but also resigned at the sight of lengthy queues to get in to see the Prime Minister's keynote speech.  Listened to it on the radio instead.  Very inspiring, very brilliant, very, very passionate.  The best attempt yet to explain the Big Society.  Churchillian flourishes.  Very TRG, One Nation content.  Kitchener-esque "your country needs you" message.  If anything, a rallying call to arms prior to the painful period of unpopularity that is bound to follow the CSR on 20th October.

I won't expand any further on the PM's speech.  Every man and his dog is currently doing that and I cannot hope to add much of novelty.

What is was, though, was a thoroughly businesslike conference.  Neither triumphalist nor, despite what the media will have you believe, riven by splits about child benefits.

In summary: 92 hours in Birmingham; 13 hours asleep.  Time well spent!

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