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September 28, 2006

How does one survive a party conference? Harry Phibbs offers some advice

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Journalist Harry Phibbs offers his insights on how to survive a Party Conference.

As a reporter I have attended all three of the main Party Conferences and even went to a "Party Conference" for the Referendum Party once in Brighton - although the latter event was purely a rally with every speech fully scripted and approved. But as a Conservative I have been to many more of their events over the years, originally bunking off school to attend.

They are curious events well worth attending for those with a keen interest in politics although perhaps not for the whole week. Always avoid the last day which has a grim feeling with the lobbyists packing up their stalls early and the massed ranks aimlessly wondering round the coffee bars tired and hungover nodding at people they half know for the fifth time that week.

When choosing a hotel it is better to choose a cheap one near the Conference Centre than an expensive one further away. There is no point being there if you are going to sit in your hotel room. Of course this depends a bit if you are paying for the hotel yourself or someone else is paying for you. When paying for myself I usually stay at a guest house or a really humble B&B.

In Blackpool on snob grounds I usually stay at the Adelaide Private Hotel, immediately opposite the press entrance at the Winter Gardens. For aristocrats it is the B&B of choice. There is one shower for several rooms that you have to queue up to share after putting a coin in the slot. As I was waiting Lord Cranbourne came out; it was shortly after his dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet after doing a deal on hereditary peers. Coming out of the shower he looked very much like an ill-trained spaniel - which was how he had described his own behaviour over Lords reform. Another time Lord Sudeley complained that the hot water didn't last long for 10p and you had to be quick or be left covered in suds.

Years earlier in the early hours of October 12th 1984 I had just returned to my B&B in Brighton, a pretty grisly place with lots of notices up concerning DSS claimants. A friend of mine called Adrian Lee (now a Tory councillor in Hounslow) was dossing on my floor when there was a noise. "That was a bomb," he told me. "Don't be ridiculous," I replied and went back to sleep.

Don't spend too much time in the main hall. Keep in mind that BBC Parliament Channel will be showing a recording of proceedings the following weekend. The Party website will have the text of the main speeches. It is certainly worth spending some time in the hall to gauge the atmosphere and to take part in a "shared experience" to discuss with others attending. When leadership elections are in the offing - as with the Tories last year or Labour this year - the reception given to the main speeches is important and you can influence it in a small way by getting in to cheer on your man.

But usually you should probably regard sitting in the main hall as an opportunity to have a rest between "networking" in the foyers around the hall. Towards the end of the morning session, it is sensible to slip out early to make sure you arrive in good time for a fringe meeting.

The laws of supply and demand are often confused over fringe meetings at Party Conferences. Typically those organising them fret that nobody will turn up and provide free food and drink. Then they end up getting swamped with people and the room becomes sweaty and crowded with the entrance blocked.

As well as getting there early another tip is to go to something where you are interested in what is being discussed, but the Tory spokesman speaking is somebody you have never heard of, especially if you wish to eat and drink for free.

My theory as to why the Conservatives and New Labour have both spent billions more on Quangos is that so many of them take exhibition stands at Party Conferences mingling happily with assorted arms manufacturers, casino operators and fur traders. For a government to abolish a Quango would mean abolishing the £5,000 or so that they hand over to the Party coffers each year for a stand. The ordinary delegates get in on the deal too with free pens and sweets. Meanwhile the old Quangos survive and new ones are added, like the Electoral Commission which has been gradually nationalising our political parties with subsidies and regulations.

You will doubtless find plenty of stallholders whose work you are sympathetic towards. Don't bother taking too many glossy information packs as they are annoying to carry around. If you are genuinely interested, it will be on their website anyway. But bring along lots of business cards to swop.

Then there are all the receptions these lobbyists hold. Bloomberg seem to splash out a lot for some reason. This had the amusing consequence that at the Labour Conference fund raising dinner, attended by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown busy shmoozing with Party donors, it was necessary to thank Bloomberg - even though they had also derailed the Conference due to one of their reporters announcing to the world Cherie Blair's unguarded comment that Gordon Brown had lied.

"Take it easy," is my main piece of advice. Often people spend so much time rushing from one reception to another they miss out on useful drinking time and are endlessly stuck in security queues. There is an alternative. Once I stayed in the same room of a hotel and vaguely noticed it would empty and fill up again during the course of the evening. It turned out that my hosts had changed. The Government of Gibraltar, then Railtrack, then the Scotch Whisky Association had each booked the same room for different slots. I did my best to write about them all as favourably as possible once I could decipher my own handwriting.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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Excellent article, Harry and a true summing up of the Conference "vibe" in my view!!

I will be there on Tuesday and Wednesday and look forward to bumping into you at some stage then!!!


Posted by: Sally Roberts at September 30, 2006 03:15 PM

Best way to survive a Party Conference, particularly your first as Leader, when you want to make a break with the past, is to come clean about that past. Maybe David will begin with Secret Tory Funds. Read on.

We, at the Conservative Campaign for Compassion, against Corruption truly believe David Cameron when he ways he wants to break with the tragic elements of the Conservative Party’s past, and re-introduce responsibility and compassion to British society.

But, we want his actions to match his words.

It is for that reason that we have addressed an open letter to David Cameron, inviting him to take responsibility for the past Conservative Arms Corruption, and to have the courage to break with that past, by annulling those of his recent appointments which would revive Tory Arms Corruption upon the election of a new Conservative Government.

Here is that letter:

"Dear David,

I write as an expatriate, but as one who spent some ten years working with the Conservative Party, at the highest level, and as one who still regards himself as a Tory loyalist.

I believe you when you say you wish truly to modernise the Party; but I also believe that you can only offer the Party as the future when you have first taken care of the past.

I attach a copy of my book, Dead Men Don’t Eat Lunch ( ). You can find a summary of its findings at:

I invite you to address the following three challenges at this week’s Party Conference:-

1. Come clean about the allegations in the book. Namely that the Conservative Governments of 1979-1997 instituted a systemic regime of arms corruption in Whitehall and Westminster, that has had an ongoing and distorting influence upon its successor New Labour administration, and upon the internal workings of the Conservative Party itself.

2. Agree to do the right thing by the families of Hugh John Simmonds, CBE and Dr. David Kelly, CB. In their different ways, they were both servants of their respective Governments, who died as a consequence of knowing too much about arms corruption. Their families deserve better. At the very least, they deserve to know the truth. Call for the re-opening of their respective Coroners' Inquiries.

3. Dismantle the apparatus that you have already put in place, which, whether you know it or not, has the fullest intention of reviving Tory arms corruption when the Conservatives return to power. As a first step, immediately annul the appointments of Michael Ashcroft, Alan Duncan, Julian Lewis and Gerald Howarth to their respective Party and Front Bench positions.

David, you have a wonderful opportunity to show that you are, indeed, a different sort of politician. One who truly stands shoulder to shoulder with ordinary people, against forces that would wantonly distort their everyday lives. Break the mould, David.

You are the same age now that Hugh Simmonds was when he died so unnecessarily in 1988. Show the world that you have the mettle to stand up to the corrupting influences in the British body politic.

Help those families who have no reason to hurt, but who hurt nonetheless, because of the callous actions of those corrupting influences. Show your country that you stand at the head of a Party, which not only talks the talk, but walks the walk, when it comes to conservative compassion.

Take a stand, David. Modernise all of the Conservative Party. Take it away from its dishonourable past, and into a future of genuine honesty and compassion.”

If there is nothing to hide, then David Cameron will not hide. Clever side-stepping, from an accomplished PR man, will be hiding.

P. Geoffrey Gilson/Conservative Campaign Against Corruption

Posted by: geoff gilson at October 1, 2006 03:42 PM
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