Pork markets and p45s: The highs and lows of political conference season | Politics News
The party conference season is a long-established ritual of British politics: part theatre, part drama and part soap opera. For many it’s the highlight of the political year.
The highs and lows of conferences – from tumultuous applause and standing ovations to unforeseen disasters and gaffes – become part of political folklore and can make or break a party leader’s reputation.
Although cancelled during COVID and curtailed this year by the death of the Queen, party conferences put the political parties in the shop window, but also expose them to microscopic scrutiny.
This year the Liberal Democrats cancelled theirs, due to start the weekend before Her Majesty’s funeral, but Labour and the Conservatives are going ahead, with the fallout from the government’s “Trussonomics” tax giveaway set to dominate the agenda at both.
Normally the thousands of people attending – MPs, delegates, lobbyists and media – can be relied upon to put the party into party conference, drinking until the small hours in sweaty hotel bars.
But this autumn, just days after the Queen’s funeral, Labour and the Conservatives are promising they’ll be “toning down” on Champagne receptions and boozy karaoke nights.
There’s likely to be no less drama inside the conference hall, however, in a year when Liz Truss will make her debut as Tory leader and prime minister. So here are some recent conference highs and lows.
Liz Truss will be hoping she doesn’t suffer the calamity that befell Theresa May in Manchester in 2017, when just about everything that could go wrong did.
In what was billed as a speech where she was fighting for her political life, a prankster handed her a P45 which he claimed Boris Johnson had asked him to give her.
Then she suffered a coughing fit. At one point the then chancellor Philip Hammond handed her a cough sweet and – to her credit – she quipped that you very rarely saw the chancellor give anything away for free.
But then, in what could have been a metaphor for her political world collapsing around her, letters began to fall off the backdrop behind her. First the F from “for” tumbled to the floor, then the final E from “everyone”.
Out of sympathy, at the end of this car crash speech the audience rose to give her a standing ovation. Not everyone, however. Home Secretary Amber Rudd had to tell Mr Johnson, then foreign secretary, to stand, which he did reluctantly.
Mr Johnson, of course, has long been the darling of Tory activists and has always been greeted at party conferences like something between a god and a rock star.
When he was London mayor and king over the water during David Cameron’s premiership, the 2012 conference in Birmingham was hit by “Boris-mania” as he upstaged his Old Etonian rival.
The Tory conference has always loved a glamorous blond/e. Think Margaret Thatcher, Michael Heseltine and now Boris Johnson. He may be the ex-PM, but he still makes Tory hearts beat faster.
From the moment he arrived at New Street station in 2012, Mr Johnson was mobbed by his adoring fans amid a media scrum. One of his true believers even had a photo showing him as PM in 2020. Yes, really!
Party activists love a winner, of course. Labour’s three-time general election winner Tony Blair was the darling of his party’s conferences until the Iraq war in 2003.
As well as the many highs during his 13 years as Labour leader, an embarrassing low came in 2000 in Brighton when he felt the heat, literally, as his shirt became soaked with sweat during his speech.
In a schoolboy error, he wore a blue shirt instead of white. The first tell-tale signs appeared under the collar, then began seeping down his chest under his tie and then creeping across his midriff.
When his jacket opened as he raised his arms at the end of the 56-minute speech, his shirt looked as if someone had thrown a glass of water at it.
As the speech was ridiculed as being more perspiration than inspiration, Labour spin doctors claimed: “It proves he’s a real man. It showed that when the heat is on he gets going.” All very amusing.
But no laughing matter for Labour was the brutal treatment by Labour stewards of an 82-year-old Jewish refugee from the Nazis, Walter Wolfgang, during the 2005 conference for heckling Jack Straw.
After shouting “Nonsense” during the then foreign secretary’s speech on Iraq, Mr Wolfgang, a founder member of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament who joined the Labour Party in 1948, was manhandled out of his seat.
He was briefly detained under anti-terrorism laws, before returning the next day to a hero’s welcome amid a flurry of apologies, including one from Mr Blair. Mr Wolfgang died in 2019, aged 95.
SIR KEIR STARMER
Heckling is pretty routine at Labour conferences. Last year Sir Keir Starmer, in his first in-person speech as leader after COVID, was heckled repeatedly by angry left-wing activists throughout.
The hecklers, who included a former Big Brother contestant, Carole Vincent, and Audrey White, a Liverpool activist expelled from the party this year, shouted demands for a £15 minimum wage, attacked Labour’s Brexit policy and demanded the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Sir Keir hit back: “Shouting slogans or changing lives, conference?” That won loud applause, as did his quip: “I’m used to being heckled on Wednesdays at prime minister’s questions. It doesn’t bother me then. It doesn’t bother me now.”
But that was a minor slap-down compared with the supreme masterclass in dealing with conference hecklers delivered by Neil Kinnock in a famous leader’s speech in Brighton in 1985.
Two years after falling flat on his face – literally – on Brighton beach during his first conference as leader in 1983, Mr Kinnock took on the Militant Tendency-led Liverpool City Council in one of the finest party conference speeches of all time.
Shouting above boos and heckles led by the city’s firebrand deputy leader Derek Hatton, Mr Kinnock declared: “I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises… you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers… You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.”
The veteran left-wing MP Eric Heffer, then a member of the party’s national executive, stormed off the platform. But the speech was hailed as a triumph, Mr Kinnock’s finest hour and a turning point in Labour’s battles with the hard left. A year later Mr Heffer was voted off the NEC.
Unlike Brighton in 1985, the mood at this year’s conferences will be subdued in comparison, coming just weeks after the Queen’s death.
But Liz Truss, whose Tory conference speeches since she joined the cabinet eight years ago have been anything but a triumph, will be hoping to stamp her authority on her party after its divisive summer leadership campaign.
The new PM’s most memorable conference speech, shortly after she became environment secretary in 2014, is recalled not for its high quality but for a delivery that was so bad it was ridiculed on TV’s Have I Got News For You.
“In December I’ll be in Beijing, opening up new pork markets!” she declared, before a wide, self-pleasing grin and a short, awkward silence as she coaxed a delayed applause from the audience.
But it got worse. “I want to see us eating more British food here in Britain,” she said. “At the moment, we import two thirds of all our apples. We import nine tenths of all our pears. We import two thirds of all our cheese. That… is… a… disgrace.”
As her Tory critics recalled that 2014 speech during this summer’s leadership contest, Ms Truss said defiantly: “I’m not the slickest candidate.” True. That didn’t prevent her defeating Rishi Sunak, however.
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After Ms Truss’s victory, the Tory faithful will be anxious to heal the wounds of the leadership contest and will give her – and her tax-cutting chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng – a good reception. But she’ll be hoping the headlines are about her, not a rival or usurper.
So she’ll be hoping Boris Johnson, the brilliant conference performer who regularly and shamelessly upstaged her two predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, at conferences, keeps his promise to stay away from the Birmingham conference this time.