I never miss the National Conservative Convention – the loya jirga for voluntary party bigwigs. They are a loyal and steadfast crew, many of whom have stuck with the party, for precious little acknowledgment or reward, through the grimmest days of its recent history. I made many friends among them during my days as Treasurer; they always give me a warm welcome, even – perhaps especially – when I am under fire, when a number of politicians are hiding under their desks. I know who I would go hunting with. The voluntary party is now led by Emma Pidding who, in the best tradition of Tory ladies, is both formidable and loveable.
Standing room only at the first ConHome event of the Conference – indeed health and safety requirements meant Polly Toynbee was left outside, along with Kevin Maguire of the Mirror. One distinguished hack who did find space was his venerable colleague Paul Routledge, who surprisingly accepted an invitation to have lunch with me recently in the House of Lords. We had a convivial time and he was very good company.
Our event on the theme of winning the next election featured Chris Grayling, David Davis and YouGov’s Stephan Shakespeare. An intriguing extra perspective was offered by Marcus Roberts of the Fabian Society, who has worked for Ed Miliband. He reminded us that in 2010 Labour lost just 39 seats in the East, South East and South West of England; this goes to show how comparatively small the southern battleground is, when there are 57 seats his party could easily gain next time in the Midlands, the North, Wales and Scotland. In other words, Labour could win a majority without having to make very much progress in the southern half of the country at all. He also mentioned the left’s secret weapon: “our sleeper cell unit that you call the Liberal Democrats”.
At the same meeting a chap from the charity World Vision asked a question about international aid. He thanked me for “pushing the aid debate up the political agenda”, which I suppose was a generous way for him to put it given what I have actually said on the subject. Happy to oblige – indeed I will continue to do so.
The right to protest is a precious part of our British freedoms – but I do wonder what people think they are achieving by shrieking and yelling and honking outside the Conference perimeter, bellowing into the faces of people trying to get in. At one point the speakers in our venue had to raise their voices above the cacophony, which was led by a woman armed with a megaphone and a voice like a circular saw. Whom do these people think they are going to convince?
Later I got talking to a group of students on their way into the hall to hear William Hague. We went up to the gods together. Their admiration for the Foreign Secretary was clear, as was the hall’s. What a statesman he has become. I reflected on what might have been. Like customers, the voters are always right – but if only they had seen things differently in 2001…
Some interesting thoughts from Jesse Norman, Robert Halfon and Martin Vickers on how to win in a marginal seat. When campaigning in a rural constituency, says Vickers, don’t assume two villages two miles apart are interested in the same things: “they’re probably not, and there is probably some ancient hostility between them anyway”. There was audible sucking of teeth as Harrington declared: “I let the Association do the In-Touches, which is a complete waste of time, just like Associations themselves.” If people want to pay £25 to sit in dreary meetings and organise wine and cheese events then let them, he says – but what matters is having people “who actually want to do things to help”. Our new friend Marcus Roberts of the Fabians popped up again at the end to tell us that academic research proves delivering leaflets has “near totally negligible effect”. Is he now trying to bamboozle us?
Pleased to be named in the Sunday Telegraph as the Twelfth Most Influential Person On The Right, sandwiched between Samantha Cameron at number 11 and Grant Shapps at number 13 (hang on – perhaps that is what he wanted to see me about the other day). But it’s a curious thing when, on the same day, the Lib Dem “Centre Forum” website says it so impressed with my call for grown-up politics (my denunciation of That Poster) that it names me a Liberal Hero Of The Week. Now that is not an accolade I would have expected.