Conservative party

Tory conference 2018 diary

BY Iain Martin | iainmartin1   /  3 October 2018

One of my better decisions in several decades of attending party conferences was the sudden realisation last year that I simply could not sit, or stand, through another long speech by Theresa May. As the poor lady arrived on stage I left the hall and headed for the train back to London. An early departure meant, thank goodness, that I missed the coughing fits and letters falling off the wall of the set. I have a low embarrassment threshold so would have hated to be in the room as disaster unfolded.

This year I also left early to beat the rush. May was much better than fine, judging by the clips. But the conference – at the leadership level – was a holding exercise ahead of what promises to be the most difficult eight or so weeks for a British government since the financial crisis of a decade ago, or arguably even since the turmoil of May 1940. The conference was a mere holding exercise, hence the lack of new ideas from the Tory leadership. Now, the action moves to London and Brussels where the bargaining on Brexit reaches a denouement. By the end of November or early December there will be a deal or there won’t and the Commons will have voted for it or it won’t.

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Beyond the rituals of a clapped out Conservative leadership, which must be replaced urgently post-Brexit, this was the liveliest Tory conference I have seen in decades. The fringe events were packed and there were loads of youngsters attending. The grassroot Tories saw what Corbyn did at his successful conference in Liverpool and they know they are now in a proper fight. Don’t write them off.

Anna Soubry, Queen of the Remainers, dissed the youngsters, however. “The problem is they all look and sound like mini Moggs,” she tweeted.

That is not a nice thing to say. You don’t have to endorse everything Jacob Rees-Mogg MP says to grasp that he is polite. Yes, he wears double-breasted suits and glasses. So what? That is not yet a crime. Is criticising someone’s appearance allowed as long as they are a white man in a traditionally-tailored suit?

Some of the young Tory activists do seem to model themselves on the Moggster, but there were plenty there who do not. They had given up their time to attend a party conference, and in the process demonstrated that the Tory party has a future long after Soubry has ceased to be an MP.

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Ten years ago this week in the midst of another Tory conference taking place in Birmingham the financial crisis raged. Congress voted down a $700bn rescue package and it seemed as though everything might collapse. With hindsight, we all know that Congress came back a few days later and changed its mind, voting for a massive and still controversial bailout package that helped arrest the spiral. We did not know that at the time, and on the evening of the night of the initial failed TARP vote the global financial system stood on the brink of the abyss. The packed bar of the Hyatt Hotel, the main conference hotel, had a 1929 feel to it that night. The wild intensity made it feel as though  assembled politicians, hacks, lobbyists and activists were drinking in a New York bar at the end of the Jazz Age as Wall Street crashed. Or perhaps the deck of the Titanic is a better comparison.

Whatever. In the Autumn of 2008 the long, mad boom was over and now we – or a lot of other people – were going to suffer, so best have one final drink before the end of capitalism. This seemed like an emergency. David Cameron should cancel his speech leader’s speech, close the conference early and head back to London to Parliament, someone hysterically told Cameron’s then head of media at the bar. Don’t be daft, he responded. The spindoctor was right.

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Conference brain fade kicks in at the beginning of a fringe session on cryptocurrencies I chaired for the next generation financial firm eToro. As chair, I begin by introducing the esteemed panel. There is one late addition. I know it is Eddie Hughes, MP for Walsall North, but for reasons beyond rational explanation I have him fixed in my head this morning as Eddie Jones, the England rugby coach. Is it Hughes or is it Jones? I complete the introductions and Eddie is last. Eddie… Eddie… Eddie? Hughes, he says. He goes on to be insightful during our discussion on how crypto – BitCoin and all that stuff – should be regulated or not. This technology has grown so fast and government is working out how to respond.

Anarcho-capitalist James Delingpole – Spectator columnist and author of “Why oh why didn’t I buy more BitCoin?” – says that he favours some from of consumer protection.

Dr Craig Wright, who has claimed to be the founder of Bit Coin, is on hand to give us a glimpse of the potential future. Blockchain technology – which creates an unbreakable record of transactions – will in decades to come be put to work on the delivery of public services, in health records and payments, all supercharged by automation and epic data collection. It will even be possible to stipulate what digital money can be spent on with welfare payments – controversial territory. This is a lightbulb moment for me, and not in a good way. Imagine in 2030 a form of money being put into my account by Mrs Martin that cannot be spent at a wine merchant.

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To Channel 4 News to be interviewed by the great Jon Snow, fresh from his defenestration of Jeremy Corbyn over the Labour leader’s appearances on Iranian state TV. In Birmingham, the Prime Minister declined for the first time anyone can remember to be interviewed by Channel 4. So, the producers “empty chair” May. The winners of this boycott are the viewers. May has strengths but as an interviewee she makes for difficult viewing. Politicians who make TV work to their advantage have to be capable of spontaneity or at least capable of faking spontaneity.

Now, says the kindly Snow, turning to me just before we go on air, you are what sort of Brexiteer? Moderate, I say. I want to leave the EU nicely if possible. Ah, you’re a gentleman Brexiteer, says Snow. I’m not sure that description fits considering the argument I had a few hours later with a leading Remainer who said Brexit was racist. Ungentlemanly language was used in response.

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Reaction is launching a new diary, The Hound (of Holborn). Why Holborn? That central London neighbourhood is near the Reaction kennels, and equidistant to Westminster (politics), the City (money, innovation and semi-occasional chicanery), the courts (law), and Soho (scene of media and business after hours carousing.)

Written by a mystery contributor who has offered to help Reaction, and then edited by me, The Hound will sniff out items of interest. If you have a lead for The Hound, email editors@reaction.life and I’ll pass it on.