It is 24 years since I walked into the Winter Gardens in Blackpool for the first time and made my party conference debut. Yes, that is me in the photo, complete with a polo neck and very dodgy hairstyle. I went to conference for many years, with many different hairstyles, including the later90’s curtains, which also made an appearance on BBC’s Question Time from Liverpool, when I made a point about saying no to the EU. Thankfully my hairstyle and views have changed so what since then. I know what you mean, Diane.
We enter another party conference season today as the Lib Dems gather for their annual sandal-fest or should that be scandal fest knowing the Lib Dems. Another three weeks of Christmas every day for political anoraks – but this political anorak is glad that the back-to-back-to-back weeks of conference attending are behind him – as well as the inevitable conference flu or cold. It is now an experience best enjoyed from the comfort and healthy food of my home. No 16 hour days of fringes, 121s, fried food, warm white wine, reception after reception, no debate debates, speeches so heavily briefed in advance that you know the punchline before it starts and hand holding of CEOs or clients, who believe that they can actually achieve something at conference apart from being seen at conference.
I wasn’t always this cynical about it. Just two years on from the polo neck I had my William Hague moment – in 1995 – aged 17 and a half. I spoke at conference, in full view of much of the cabinet and the Prime Minister, John Major. My speech was shown live on BBC2 and watched by family, fiends, school teachers – it also prompted a piece of hate mail – which I still have – and a congratulatory hug from Gillian Shepperd! My abiding memory of the speech was begging “to support the motion”, leaving the podium and stage and turning to the applauding (yes, applauding) audience and nodding like I was Seve and had just knocked in a four footer for birdie en route to the Claret Jug. I choose this memory to blot out the recollection of the double-breasted suit!
I don’t miss going through conference season at all except for one aspect. All three are different in character and philosophy but all three offer great opportunities to bond with colleagues and party friends. I’ve had some great days and great laughs at conference – both through work and party politics. I am delighted to be watching the from my desk and sofa and not from the lobby of the Imperial, Grand, High Cliff or Hyatt but I will – just for a few minutes over the next three weeks – miss the excitement and buzz of conference. But, just for a few minutes.