Paul Routledge – Out of the cage
IT WAS all William Hagueâ€™s fault, as usual. He promised, General Macarthur-style: â€œWe shall returnâ€ to Blackpool, merely because Labour had abandoned the resort of the masses for the lures of metropolitan Manchester.
So the Tories had to shlep all the way to the Winter Gardens for one last time, in the questionable hope that David Cameron would repeat his barnstorming performance of 2005 that won him the Conservative leadership.
His promise of a â€œnew politicsâ€ â€“ which brought a New Conservative Party dangerously close â€“ got representatives to their feet, but is not reverberating through the country to the same degree. Considering how pragmatic the Tories are, ludicrously heavy expectations were placed on the frail craft of the leaderâ€™s speech. One hour of Dave on his hind legs was never going to deliver them from the great clunking fist.
Members of the Shadow Cabinet who gathered on opening night for a soirÃ©e with the Westminster lobby talked only of the â€œpossibilityâ€ of a Conservative victory when Gordon Brown goes to the polls. Their private misgivings gave the lie to Cameronâ€™s blustering talk of a â€œfightbackâ€.
Lord Ashcroft, the partyâ€™s bankroller, was evasive about how the Tories would spend their Â£10 million war chest. But his self-praise for the last election strategy of targeting money on the key marginals was a clear signal that millions will be channelled in this direction. Ivan Henderson (the Labour victim at Harwich), Peter Bradley (ditto The Wrekin), Andy King (Rugby) and a host of others bear testimony to the effectiveness of Ashcroftâ€™s acumen.
Belatedly, the unions are waking up to the virtue of targeted spending. I expect the arrival of Charlie Whelan as political director â€“ director? come on, comrade! â€“ to super-union Unite to accelerate this process.
But back to the Golden Mile. Cameron was noticeably more ill at ease than his previous Old Etonian dapperness. Heâ€™s lost a lot of weight and has â€œfret bagsâ€ under his eyes. He is clearly apprehensive about his future â€“ and with good reason. The sharks are circling in the water. While William Hague remains the obvious retread candidate, Liam Fox, the self-appointed hard man of the right, was putting himself about on the fringe with an energy that prompted suspicions about his leadership ambitions.
There are even doubts about the loyalty of George Osborne, who threw the red meat of tax cuts to conference and denounced (with more meaning than grammatical accuracy) the â€œuber-modernisersâ€ in the party. Is there a Cameron versus Osborne conflict springing up, to rival the Brown versus Blair show that ran for 10 years? Intriguing.
IT MUST be conceded, however, that the Tory conference fringe was more lively than Labourâ€™s in Bournemouth â€“ in size, if nothing else. I counted 112 events on one day alone.
You could sip champagne with swivel-eyed right-wing nutters who found the only smoking terrace in Blackpool â€“ at the Hilton â€“ to celebrate the eternal freedom of fags, or be bored to tears by the Eurosceptic Bruges Group. Apart from the Cameron Question, the issue on everybodyâ€™s lips was Labourâ€™s refusal to hold a referendum on the upcoming Lisbon Treaty.
I suppose itâ€™s much easier to entertain a wide spectrum of opinions when you are in opposition. If a minister makes an injudicious remark on the fringe, it is immediately inflated to a split in government. Tory spokesmen can promise their followers the earth because they are unlikely to inherit it.
Inside the conference hall, smaller numbers were this year exaggerated by clever raised seating, backed by ghastly swathes of black sheeting. The attempt to create an aura of professionality was dented, on the first day, by the failure of the sound system. An engineer who counted from one to 10 at the rostrum 100 times (it felt like that) was voted by old hands as the best speech of the day. Heâ€™s been booked again for next year â€“ the next best thing to Paul McKenna, by common consent.
And this is definitely the last time we will be going to Blackpool for a major party conference. The town itself has seen better days and rail services are worse than the steam train era. Representatives complained about horrendous delays, and sandwiches running out at Milton Keynes. Well, they would, wouldnâ€™t, they?
ANOTHER conference balls-up. The Parliamentary Beer Group held its bash in a pub with no beer. Well, almost. Certainly, there was no real ale, unless you count thimble-sized glasses of a bottled brew. And this body is supposed to champion the real stuff.
The blame for this parlous state of affairs must be laid at the taproom door of Beer Group leader Nigel Evans, Tory MP for nearby Ribble Valley. He organises the annual event, with varying measures of success. And he wants to run the country.
Your correspondent made an excuse and left.