This weekend like thousands of others I am gearing up for the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. In various capacities – assistant to a Secretary of State (Virginia Bottomley), aide to a leader (William Hague), lobby correspondent (Mail on Sunday), but mainly just as an ordinary member – I have been attending the annual gathering for more than three decades. This year will be my 34th. In various professional capacities I have also attended 20 Labour conferences, and several Lib Dems ones too. Each one has been exciting and intriguing.
But1984, my first, was unique. I had been woken up in the middle of the night by a rumbling sound, my home not being far from the Grand Hotel and Brighton Conference Centre. The IRA had tried to blow up the Prime Minister. The early morning TV pictures were extraordinary – Norman Tebbit being pulled from the rubble and Home Secretary Leon Brittain being taken to the local police station for his own safety. But the abiding memory was Mrs Thatcher taking to the stage, smart as a new pin, and delivering a thundering oration. Unforgettable.
From Brighton to Bournemouth, Blackpool to Birmingham, and Manchester to Liverpool party members and the assorted hangers on – journalists, lobbyists, business executives, charity campaigners – gather, draw strength from being with the like minded, enjoy companionship from fellow leaflet deliverers, rub shoulders with those they see on the telly and to mix with those who govern or seek to govern.
Sometimes really momentous things do happen. It was in Brighton that Neil Kinnock, having won the leadership as a left winger, began the long and painful process of of repudiating his own and his party’s recent past and tried nudging Labour to a more centrist position. His speech, one of the bravest of any modern political leader, attacking far left Militant and its record in Liverpool earned him the undying enmity of the hard left and opened the way for Tony Blair to seize the leadership and carry the party into power.
There are extraordinary moments that as you sit and watch you can hardly believe are happening. Michael Portillo, now famous as a trainspotter, but at one time a serious Conservative leadership contender, gave as Defence Secretary his infamous SAS speech, for which he was rightly widely ridiculed and lampooned. One year Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley burst into song. They were both lucky this was a time before Twitter and social media. There are many speeches delivered by ministers,shadow ministers, and party members. Few are remembered. Still fewer make a difference.
All the conferences have marked similarities. At all conferences there is the extraordinary gap between what you experience in the hall and the corridors of the conference centre and what you see reported on TV or in the newspapers. Leaders are always greeted more warmly than predicted. The more difficult the political landscape the more likely it is party members at a conference are to pull together in a public display of support. These are essentially family occasions. We may bicker among ourselves but that does not mean we like you putting your oar in. Every party member understands that there are at least two principal opponents – the other main party and the media. It is difficult to discern who is disliked more.
Traditionally, it falls to the chairman of the Conservative Party and the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party to do what started as BBC bashing but has now broadened out into an attack on the press as a whole. Alex Salmond notably pioneered the practice in Scotland picking on the BBC in general and Nick Robinson in particular. You can always win a cheer at the Conservative conference by having a go at the BBC or Polly Toynbee. You can do the same at Labour by teasing the Daily Mail. Donald Trump of course has raised this activity into a political art form. In an extraordinary way it suits both sides, because it pulls politicians and the media into a tighter embrace, and pushes members and ultimately voters further into the margin of political discussion.
The best measure of the political health of a party is how many businesses subscribe to the conference’s business day, how many take stands in the main hall, and how many sponsor events. Bigger business may be a favourite target at Labour and, more recently, at Conservative conferences but their money matters in the party’s never ending need to raise money. There was no clearer sign of the terrible state of the Conservative party following the 1997 General Election than the emptiness of stands in the main hall in Blackpool and the absence of business sponsors. It is a brutal and accurate indicator of which way the political wind is blowing. This year at Labour the business day was sold out.
The media, business, charities, think-tanks and pressure groups, are in the end bystanders. They are guests. In recent years at both Labour and Conservative conferences they have become too much of a presence. If the trend continues they will destroy that which they have come to see. It is the members that matter – and the MPs and frontbenchers who do their best to mingle and chat. Here and there you can spot the anxious face of a would be candidate trying to ingratiate themselves with an Association Chairman or CLP Chair.
For the leader conference is a gruelling annual hurdle. Winston Churchill used to drop in for the last day of the conference, deliver his speech, and head back to Chartwell as quickly as possible. Now the Leader is ensconced, or imprisoned depending on your view, in the main suite of the conference hotel for the whole week. If you are Prime Minister as well as Party Leader you are trying to run the country while doing this. You cannot move from your room without being spotted. You have to attend parties, gatherings, donor receptions, be friendly, smile a great deal, receive drafts of your speech and send it back and tell your staff to do better, sit on the platform and listen to your colleagues auditioning for your job, and try and get some sleep in an unfamiliar bed in an air conditioned room where you cannot open a window. This is what Theresa May is heading off to this weekend.
For the next few days Mrs May will be at the epicentre of a hurricane of commentary, analysis, perceived set-backs, and alleged cabinet rebellions.
None of this matters. It will make little difference to the government or the nation’s future. What the sophisticated metropolitan types of the Westminster bubble miss is that Theresa May is in her heart a Conservative Party activist.
Like her principal opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, Mrs May is an activist who happens to have become leader. If they were not leaders of their respective parties it is a fair bet both would still attend their conferences. Can we say the same of David Cameron or Tony Blair. Even Winston Churchill displayed some ambiguity about affection for his (various) political parties. The Conservative Party knows this about Mrs May, understands it. Every weekend she goes out canvassing. Often she goes and helps other candidates too. Like John Major she enjoys it on the doorstep.
This week the noise level will be high and there will be much turbulence in Birmingham, but come Wednesday afternoon as everyone heads off home little will have changed.