The Tories’ Virtual Conference Does Not Appear To Have Been A Roaring Success
The Conservatives’ annual conference should have been a way for the party to take the temperature of its members, thank activists for their work and, this year especially, to revel in their electoral success.
Or it would have been, had the pandemic not robbed them of the chance to meet in person and dramatically altered the mood less than year on from an emphatic election victory.
Moving it all online had not only a political cost to the Tories though – it came at a massive financial cost too - as the events, which alternate between Manchester and Birmingham, are a huge source of revenue.
In an attempt to fill the large hole in their coffers – the party made around £5million from the 2018 event – they set up a digital “exhibition hall” where “virtual stalls” could be purchased for up to £25,500 plus VAT.
Lobbyists could pay £7,400 for a “policy roundtable” over Zoom, or get the use of a studio for £40,000 to host fringe events over the four days.
But all did not seem to go as planned. One MP complained that it was “plagued with technical problems”, and at one event he and others were speaking to no one, as the audience were locked out.
And PoliticsHome understands that one think tank has even asked for a refund, complaining the pricey private roundtables with ministers “didn't work at all”. In response the party declined to comment.
On the opening day social media was awash with complaints about being unable to log in, and the problems were so bad conferencer services sent out an email reading: “Dear exhibitor, we are currently having some technical issues therefore you may not experience the full functionality of the stand or the platform at the moment.
“We are working extremely hard on getting that back up and running as soon as possible.”
The issues didn’t stop there. The BBC's television feed dropped out midway-through Rishi Sunak’s speech on Monday, just as he was about to heap praise on the Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson’s autocue failed during his address the following day.
That said, it’s not like live conference speeches have always gone to plan, as anyone who was in Manchester for Theresa May’s disaster in 2017 will attest.
And not every fringe event was a failure; one in support of a malaria charity on Monday was well-attended by a highly-engaged audience. But that did have the benefit of being sponsored by Fever Tree, meaning those invited were sent a parcel full of gin and tonics beforehand.
Gabe Winn, founder and CEO of consultants The Blakeney Group who put on the event, said they had designed it to “counter Zoom fatigue”, and make it more interactive.
“A lot of fringe discussions were like a Teams call, just with ever so slightly more famous people,” he told PoliticsHome.
“That doesn’t work; your attention span is much shorter online, there’s more distractions, and you’re likely to be ironing/eating/typing/changing a nappy whilst half-listening in.”
One of the MPs who took part, former minister Tim Loughton, said the gin tasting was “actually the one fringe meeting which went without a hitch”.
He added the fringe events he attended “were all plagued with technical problems”, and that experience was echoed by his colleagues.
“My first fringe meeting we had to wait over 10 minutes for the panel to be let in and then after five minutes we were all cut off and eventually had to be sent a new link meaning we started again almost half an hour later, meaning it was a rather curtailed event”, he said.
"It was also quite disconcerting not being able to see how many or who was Zooming in and it turned out in the first part of my first meeting we had just been talking to ourselves and there was no audience able to tune in.”
For Tory activist Jackson Ng it was “a real loss for our members not being able to mingle, socialise and debate in person”.
He said: “I participated in a few fringes and listened to a few speeches but of course, it is not the same as being in a room full of like-minded activists.”
As for the PM’s performance, the former parliamentary candidate and local constituency chairman added: “I thought Boris's speech felt more like an address to the nation, focusing more on his vision for a post covid Britain but also redefining what the Conservative Party now stands for.
"It was a robust performance which I was impressed by, as always with Boris. Although as a practising barrister, I think he should have put the point he made about human rights lawyers into better context.”
The Ipswich MP Tom Hunt was more impressed, saying it was right for Johnson to set out “broad visions for the future”, and despite it being hard to generate much excitement for a virtual speech, it “hit the mark”.
Having been elected in December, it would have been his first conference as a member of Parliament, having attended every year since 2011. He said that “would have been an interesting experience”, however he understood this was “what was needed for now”.
But on the bright side he added: “I guess I've saved my liver slightly.”
The PM said in his address: “we will ensure that next time we meet it will be face to face and cheek by jowl”, something most MPs and activists are looking forward too as well.
But not everyone is missing the warm white wine in a stuffy conference centre, one long-suffering Spad joking after this year’s virtual proceedings: “I’d be perfectly happy never to go back to conference ever again.”
For now the party is claiming the online version was a success, touting the fact 22,000 members registered for the event and “over 16,000 unique visitors” visited the website.
The Tories added some main hall events had 6,000 members watching through the virtual conference portal alone, whereas only around 1,000 people would be packed into the actual halls.
The party co-chair Amanda Milling said: “I’m delighted that over our Virtual Conference we were able to welcome more members than ever before, with members able to ask hundreds of questions directly to Ministers, and the fringe continuing to thrive as well."