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By Bishop of Leeds
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'A party for drunks and a press conference': Tanya Gold reflects on Conservative Party Conference


7 min read

Like a moth to the flame, Tanya Gold finds herself drawn once again to the nihilistic glamour that is Conservative Party Conference.

I am amazed to find myself paying to attend Conservative Party Conference, as they now charge journalists for entry. Perhaps this is the natural end result of Boris Johnson’s Entertainer as Leader schtick: pay for content, and content you shall have. But I did. I have to. Conference is the lodestar of lobby journalism; the endpoint. It offers access, but not news. Gossip is not news. News is what happens to a whole country, not just its leadership: quite often I think the lobby colludes in not telling us news, which is anti-news.

But there is something narcotic about Conference all the same. I have been going for years, and the thing it most reminds me of is the party at the end of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man: a sort of hallucinogenic walk through News at Ten with menace. You will all have your own Conference: mine is a labyrinth, Gormenghast with nuts for the party faithful (and faithless).

There is drama, and shifting about because, socially, anything can happen: like all good parties, it is an equaliser. Is it Las Vegas for people who like a low tax burden? At my first conference, 20 years ago, I found myself lifted up by a gaggle of journalists and, eventually, beached in Francis Maude’s suite. That might be nothing to you, but I grew up in the suburbs of London. The dark glamour was astonishing to me.

Conference is two things: a party for drunks, and a press conference which offers the ideal – though this is usually another hallucination – of renewal.

It is no longer by the sea: Bournemouth and Brighton and Blackpool, all lost. Now it is in Manchester or Liverpool or Birmingham so the party can pretend to reflect the country, pretend it isn’t having fun. Brighton makes everyone think about sex, whether they are having it or not: it is a trivial place. It is a shame, though: decline without mirrors decline within, and a tatty seaside town is just more interesting. I used to love coming out of an IEA event – popular with ugly teenagers, who long for the world to be a business, because that is more navigable, and certain, than love – and seeing the Blackpool Tower in the dark: it seemed so vivid. Perhaps too vivid. The new venues have less identity. They feel windowless; airless. Like you could be anywhere: inside a television screen, for instance, which, in truth, you are.

Conference is two things: a party for drunks, and a press conference which offers the ideal – though this is usually another hallucination – of renewal. The leader will be seen against a white background with motif – torch, tree, fracked tree – speaking, and then being cheered. This is good marketing – and possible – because if you have travelled many hundreds of miles and paid for a hotel room you will cheer almost anything. If you won’t, why did you come? (I have cheered, but in the other place. I cheered from boredom and a vague sense of hope.) I think Liz Truss will have a good Conference, and that is another of its pleasures: knowing that, however powerless and useless you are, you are having more fun than the prime minister who is locked in a hotel suite, practising its phrasing for the last day. But perhaps Truss loves Conference more than most leaders: she is appreciated here. I have seen her in the IEA tent, exercising her ankles by spinning them. Her shoes were high and shiny, and the tent loved them. I think they would have liked to touch them.

Sometimes real news happens. In 2005 Conference coincided with the leadership election which ended with David Cameron’s rule. That was the year David Davis and his supporters ran around wearing merchandise that said “it’s DD for me”. It was a kind of nadir. People pecked at Ken Clarke for quotations, but it did him no good. Two Cameron supporters told me, while pinning an I LOVE DC badge on me: “We love his policies. We love his hair.” That was another nadir. I found Cameron on a pier launching his campaign, staring back at Britain, and outside a conference room, smoking a cigarette, a tiny scoop. You see them at the edges here, and they seem real.

Or there is a smaller message eking out for the public: a few years ago, for instance, at the height of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, I found perhaps 500 delegates queuing for the Conservative Friends of Israel fringe meeting. It was very odd, and I think the queuers themselves were surprised.

There is, in fact, no point to Conservative Party Conference, and that is why it is thrilling.

Mostly, though, things that happen are unreal, or they should be: the Boris Johnson rolling goat fuck – that is a technical term – of 2006, for example. Conference can be deadly or useful for politicians: hacks are hungry and bored, and the more of us are there the worse we tend to behave. I was waiting for an interview with Johnson when he made some minor gaffe relating to Jamie Oliver and Turley Twizzlers. The interview was forgotten. Instead, we followed him around, gathering others as we moved. (As Robert Bolt had Henry VIII say: “A mob follows me because it follows anything that moves”). By the end he looked at us with real hatred (you see them as they are here, as I said), but, of course, he had the final laugh. Party members think they made him; no, we did. We served him up.

The best thing is trying to get the better of the press office. They are mindlessly controlling: I have seen them try to deny a ticket to the prime minister’s speech to the New Yorker. What is the New Yorker to them?

The thing to do, I have learnt, if you are denied – and there is always room, they do it for spite – is to borrow one of the tiny pieces of paper they hand out to luckier (meaning courtier) journalists and photocopy it, ideally in their own office on their own copier, and then plonk yourself down in the foreign diplomatic corner, where, if you are discovered, they will be too embarrassed to throw you out. It’s an adequate revenge.

Usually the press office is in control but not always. They couldn’t do anything with Iain Duncan Smith. I watched his speech in 2003: the young party faithful picked out to stand behind him jumped up and down in direct inverse proportion to his leadership qualities, which are negligible. It was desperate, and we knew it was over. It looked mad and Tories, back then, didn’t do mad.

Then there are the lobbyists: you choose the company you most despise, and go and steal their free stuff, which is meant for politicians: tote bags, sandwiches, pens. Lots of pens. I hope politicians cannot be bought for pens – or not just pens – but, if they are, this is the place for it.

There is, in fact, no point to Conservative Party Conference, and that is why it is thrilling. It has no power of its own, it does not vote, it does not offer policy: it is entirely performative. There are none of the splits you see at Labour, where people outside hold placards, and stop delegates to explain why the leader of the party they plausibly belong to is really just like Joseph Stalin. It is a psychodrama – offering tiny facts to history books: and that is why I will pay.

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