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Home » Culture, Policy

Roll-up, roll-up it’s conference time again…and don’t forget your briefs

Submitted by on 16 Nov 2010 – 12:50


By Quentin Letts, a columnist with the Daily Mail

So farewell then Brighton and Bournemouth, as Private Eye’s poet EJ Thribb (17) might put it. The south coast has been dumped. This year’s party conference season will be a north-west of England affair with a dash of the Midlands.

The travelling circus of hacks, politicos, lobbyists, international observers and – oh yes, nearly forgot about them – activists will visit Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester (twice). Memo to self: pack brolly. Plus normal ration of notepads, Biros, laundered smalls and Andrews Liver Salts, naturally.
The 2010 conferences promise to be belters. The TUC kicks off the season, no doubt with a few understanding, statesmanlike, restrained words about the cuts. Er, well maybe not. Then we head off to the Lib Dems, Labour and finally the Tories. After which some us will need a week at the Priory. Labour will be announcing a new leader the day before its conference proper starts in Manchester on Sunday Sept 26. That will surely give an injection of optimism to what might otherwise have been a festival of comradely recrimination and Glasgow kisses. Mind you, the coronation of the new leader will also give good grumbling opportunities to the defeated leadership candidates’ spear carriers. Late night sessions in the bar of the Midland Hotel could become even more convivial than normal. “Let me take the air out of that glass, comrade. Now,then. What was that you were saying about the Miliband/Balls/Burnham/Abbot campaign?”
The last time some of us political reporters stabled overnight at the Midland was the day of Gordon Brown’s election campaign encounter with Mrs Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale handbagger. The Midland bar was also the scene for the infamous, small-hours briefing by Damian McBride on the eve of Ruth Kelly’s not entirely smooth departure from the Cabinet a couple of years ago. Happy memories.

The Labour conference will give the new Leader of the Opposition an unprecedented media whoosh in his (or her) first hours in the job. Dangers will lurk in the undergrowth, as David Miliband found in 2008 when he was photographed with his banana early one morning. How on earth will the Labour aides find time to write the new leader’s conference speech? And who will introduce the Labour leader to the stage this year? For the past two years that task was carried out by Sarah Brown, warm-up woman to “my hero, my husband” Gordon. Will Labour’s new first spouse follow suit. I do hope not. It will only encourage the others.
By then we will have had the Liberal Democrats’ week in Liverpool. Now here is a phrase not often hear in recent decades, but the Libs’ conference is a must-attend event. An all-ticket match. Expect touts outside offering
to buy your conference pass.

Will deputy prime minister Nick Clegg be welcomed as the returning hero? Or will it start raining sandals the moment the Cleggmeister steps on stage? Place your bets. Messrs William Hill could make a fortune if they set up a conference betting parlour.

In past years the Lib Dem conference has been reported by the media in a tone of gentle mockery. This year things could become more combative. The smallest evidence of “loony Lib Demmery” may be whipped up into front-page
Fleet Street tales of Coalition wobbling and eccentrics at the heart of the Government. The customary trouser flappers, militant vegetarians, purple-haired transsexuals and United Europe enthusiasts may find themselves being steered to the fringe by Mr Clegg’s efficient young cohorts.

Merseyside had a taste of the autumn conference merry-go-round last year when the TUC was held there but with the Lib Dems now in government, that week will be fraught with more tension than you find at a Liverpool-Everton derby. Despite some media reports that David Cameron would attend (and that Nick Clegg would turn up at the Conservatives’
conference), that will not happen. Mr Cameron will be watching the Liverpool conference, no doubt with admiration and pleasure, from behind his sofa in Downing Street. Nor will Mr Clegg’s speech close the conference, as is the custom. He will be speaking on the Monday before heading – I almost wrote “fleeing” – to an unmissable engagement in New
York city.

As for the Tories, their return to Birmingham will, I am sure, be welcomed by that fine city’s laptop dancing establishments, which went to the trouble, when last the Tories were in town, of placing an advertisement
in the conference programme. Harriet Harman still fans herself at the memory.

This year David Cameron’s activists can look forward to a slinky little cameo (on the conference fringe) from Vince Cable. A handful of other Lib Dem parliamentarians are expected to be in attendance. Cordial relations
will, one trusts, be observed at all times. The week will be gripped inevitably by talk of deficit reduction and Coalition balance but there may also be some nursery talk, provided all goes well with Sam Cam’s pregnancy.

If you see knitting needles on the conference hall, it will not be tricoteuses. It will be the tory matrons making booties for the PM’s new baby.