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Party Conference Wrap - Flat.. Flat.. Cat

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I just got off the phone to a Conservative MP who hasn't bothered going to party conference this year. "So you just watched it on the TV instead, then?" I asked.

"I haven't seen a minute of it," they replied. "I've been catching up with constituency stuff. I'm not the only one, quite a few MPs haven't bothered going. I hate conference anyway. It's even more bitchy and nasty than Parliament."

Unfortunately that MP was slightly mistaken. Conservative conference wasn't particularly bitchy or nasty this year, just a process of gradual disintegration. At least it wasn't the flattest of the three.

That award goes to the Liberal Democrats, whose epic five-day conference drove journalists to the point of insanity. Not because of the endless procedural motions and lacklustre speeches by the likes of Cable and Clegg. There just wasn't anyone interesting to talk to. The Lib Dems no longer appear to have any young members, apart from those who work for an MP or who are among the lucky few to still have a council seat.

After six o'clock in the evening the slightly morose membership, most of whom, shall we say, are in the 'afternoon' of their lives, melted away to their hotels and hostels, leaving only MPs, lobbyists (more of those at Lib Dems than in previous years) and think-tank types to drink each other's wine.

We didn't learn much except that Vince Cable is very, very worried about the eurozone and the global economy, so much so that he couldn't find it in himself to include a single decent gag in his keynote speech.

The highlight of Lib Dem conference was arguably Tim Farron's speech, which briefly jump-started conference out of its collective catatonia. He told them the truth - as a party they're on the ropes, working in coalition with the Tories hurts like hell, and someday it'll all end in tears.

What's become clear as conference season's progressed is how far away we seem to be from that "divorce" Farron talks about. There seems to be a settled view in all three parties that this won't be the last round of conferences before the next election. Whereas last year coalition politics looked all shiny and fragile, 15 months in there's a consensus that it can work in the long-term and isn't constantly on the verge of shattering.

This is why Labour can sit back and keep on opposing absolutely everything for a while, despite having a disastrous conference crowned by one of the vaguest and uninspiring set-pieces by any party leader for some years. It wasn't just that journalists found it to be hollow, it was the delayed disappointment felt by the young activists which was telling. For them Ed Miliband's speech turned out to be like going out for a Chinese. They felt satisfied during and immediately after, but then after a couple of hours found themselves strangely unsatisfied and hungry. And then they got drunk.

One of the biggest highlights of the entire conference season was the sight of 200 Labour activists outside the Jury's Inn in Liverpool, political sobriety coming hand-in-hand with alcoholic inebriation. "It was shit, wasn't it?" said one to another at two o'clock in the morning. As the wee small hours dragged on, most of those left standing or staggering formed a similar view.

Meanwhile Ed Balls managed to deliver an impressive speech where he said he was very, very worried about the eurozone and the global economy and managed to attack George Osborne without sounding like a throwback from the 1970s.

For Labour it's now clear there are two types of person. Those who favour the constructive approach and want to pick their battles carefully (Yvette Cooper, Tristram Hunt), and those whose instinctive response to everything is robotically oppose, oppose, oppose (Emily Thornberry, John Healy).

We're told by Ed Miliband's people that there isn't to be any reshuffle in the next couple of days, but if there was one, the question would be how many of the revised shadow cabinet belonged to this latter group, and whether that's a good thing for a party which wants to win back power.

Exactly who they're supposed to be winning power back from is an interesting question for Dr David Starkey, who excited the eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party by declaring that the Tories were "in office, not in power". Whether that's true or not, the Tories did manage to show they weren't entirely in control of their own Cabinet members. May and Clarke between them managed to undermine the solid, if not slavish, support of Tory members by having mini spats involving cats.

The Tories had managed to get most of Fleet Street eating out of their hand by briefing a chosen few editors about the contents of the keynote speeches (including George Osborne confirming that council tax will be frozen, something he'd already pledged two years ago). Unfortunately the ministers themselves did the journalists' jobs for them by questioning one another, producing the only spat among senior politicians in the entire conference season.

Meanwhile George Osborne demonstrated how very, very worried about the economy and the eurozone he was by jetting off to Luxembourg halfway through his own party's conference. Because while everyone in the British politico-media complex has been dining out and getting drunk, more bits of the eurozone have been falling off as inept politicians across the Channel watch on, seemingly paralysed.

Then the wheels really began to fall off at the Tory conference. Spoon-feeding lines to lobby hacks backfired spectacularly on Wednesday morning, leading to the PM's speech being hastily revised, delivered by a man who clearly didn't get much sleep the night before, and leaving the nagging impression that this wasn't the speech that he wanted to deliver.

All in all, given Ed Miliband's poorly-received address to Labour, and the spats about cats and hasty re-writes of the PM's speech among the Tories, we're reluctantly having to hand this year's virtual party conference trophy to the Lib Dems. It might have been tedious, but they managed to go five days without any presentational fiascos.

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