Colm Lock, whose attendance at the Conservative Party Conference saw him egged by a protester, gives an exclusive insight into what it was like inside the ‘safe zone’, and his jump onto the front pages of national newspapers
All is abuzz in the conference hall. One can hear nothing but the murmurings and merry chortles of party activists that come with winning your first majority in 23 years. The protesters outside are inaudible. Numerous and vocal though they may be, their effect on the interior is underwhelming.
“Tory scum!” and “Shame on you!” shout the crowd, creating a sound I doubt has been heard on British shores since the Jacobite charge at Culloden. It is of course, the Conservative Party Conference that has drawn such a crowd, both in and out of the conference hall.
It is indeed a momentous occasion for the Conservative party with attendance up 30 per cent and, for the first time in many students’ memories, a majority Conservative government in power. They went into the last election insisting a majority was possible whilst the pollsters and media sat in a circle and talked endlessly of the most ghastly coalitions their imaginations could conjure up. So now they have power for the first time since the 1990s and, if the protesters are to be believed, the end of the world will come about as a result.
The first major speech is from the party chairman, Lord Feldman, who talked about the election victory and what is needed to achieve a second victory in 2020, after which the attendees were treated to a montage of the events of the general election. The biggest cheers came from the clips showing Vince Cable and Ed Balls losing their seats to Tania Mathias and Andrea Jenkyns, respectively. Speeches from the Secretaries of State for Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth affairs were largely inconsequential, and had very similar overtones regarding Russia and Daesh (I refuse to give that death cult the legitimisation of statehood) breaking no news.
The media seemed much more interested in the events that were unfolding outside. A journalist was punched, a young Tory threatened with rape, two more journalists spat on—one of whom was Michael Crick from Channel 4.
Most infamously, I took an egg to the face.
In my defence I was not brandishing Lady Thatcher’s face at the protestors; rather, I was carrying under my arm a copy of the Sunday Telegraph that happened to feature a picture of the Iron Lady on the front cover. I have no doubt that the person who threw the egg thought it would be the spark of some revolution but, in the end, all it achieved was an unexpected trip to the dry cleaners.
It was not until the next day that I quite realised the amount of coverage that what I considered to be an incident of minimal significance had received. Upon waking up on Monday morning it was to my disbelief that I had made it into every national newspaper, prompting the BBC, ITV and LBC to hound me for an interview for the remainder of the conference.
Much was said by the baying Left of how I was clearly an old Etonian who had never worked a day in his life. If they ever learnt the truth—that I am in fact state school educated and the son of two teachers, whose first proper job was in a garden centre—I doubt they could comprehend such a revelation. Taking the time to explain to them that you can be both a Conservative and not have been educated at an elite boarding school would be would be about as useful as tits on a fish. Their world view is one very much rooted in 19th century class structure, where your place in the social ladder dictates your political persuasions and where revolution is just around the corner, something they have been saying since the Victorian period.
The Conservative Party nowadays is quite a broad church, welcoming all classes, races and sexualities. Hence why it is the Conservatives who have given this country its first female prime minister, first Muslim woman in the cabinet, first Chinese MP, and currently has an ex-miner as the secretary of state for transport. I also hasten to add that, unlike the Labour Party, the Conservatives have a woman occupying one of the four great offices of state.
It was also the first year when journalists have had to enter the party’s conference alongside the rank and file members, and they got a shock. Even Owen Jones, of all people, was called “Tory scum” on his way in. Never before have I seen anything quite like it, and it has woken up the press to just how violent the radical left can be. Your average Conservative party activist will have dealt with this abuse from day one, but journalists have not ever really been on the receiving end until now. The criticism brought about by the media is rightly placed: Where is the new “gentler, kinder politics”?
I would argue there never was going to be any such thing from a man who so openly has endorsed the IRA’s attacks on British troops and civilians, and who has described the death of Osama Bin Laden as a tragedy. I only single out Jeremy Corbyn because I was there. I saw the placards in the crowd proclaiming support for Corbyn, and I have no doubt that many moved on to see him speak at a rally on the Monday evening. He has the power to tell them firmly to stop and embrace civility when dealing with one’s political adversaries, but only timid bleats can be heard from his cabal of terrorist-sympathising front benchers.
But comrades, I digress. The second day of conference began with slightly sore heads, as most members remained in the Midland bar until about 2am. While most speeches of the day were rather lacklustre—with the exception of George Osborne—the best aspect was that Liz Truss had managed to avoid making another awful speech regarding imported cheese and the opening of pork markets in China.
The Chancellor made his speech to a crowd that, even without the help of Mystic Meg, could probably have predicted most of its contents a week in advance. It mentioned a fair bit about builders and the “Northern Powerhouse” but it was a powerful speech nonetheless. Osborne talked about rebalancing the country’s economy, investing in infrastructure and of course, let’s all say it together now, “to fix the roof while the sun is shining,” this being one of the Chancellor’s favourite catchphrases that appeared in a speech so full of buzzwords, you could probably create a good drinking game out of it.
On the other hand, the fringe events were a whole different ball game. Owen Paterson MP hosted two retired army officers who talked candidly about the situation in the Middle East, and were probably the most informed people on the subject I had heard speak on the matter in a long time. One event called Open Europe, where free beer was provided in copious quantities in return for listening to a small speech on the benefits of free trade within Europe, was a firm favourite.
I was lucky enough to grab a ticket to possibly one of the most sought-after events at conference: Zac Goldsmith’s reception. It was fairly inspiring stuff and, with it being so late, one often finds politicians tend to drop the media polished façade and become more like actual people. He spoke passionately about London and his plans for it, ranging from his plan to build on Transport for London land and his opposition to a third Heathrow runway.
One thing that must be emphasised is that these are the situations where politics becomes personal. Gone are the bodyguards, lecterns and camera crews. Instead, these events tend to be held in small, crowded rooms where personal space is often something of a luxury. Zac’s event was held in the upstairs of a small, cramped, poorly lit bar, but it allowed members to get a one-on-one with the politicians. It is often said that politicians are inaccessible or too distant from reality, but they are not going to come to your door and have a chat with you about immigration in your pyjamas. An effort must be made and it is truly an effort, as this bar had noticeably failed to discover the wonderment that is modern air conditioning.
Tuesday came and with it, a new energy. It was the day the conference was going to hear from the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May, Zac Goldsmith, Jeremy Hunt, Nicky Morgan and, of course, Boris Johnson. Seats in the main conference hall became the hottest tickets in town. Duncan Smith was one of the few that really inspired the conference hall to stand up and applaud following his speech. A standing ovation is usual procedure following each speech but his felt more deserved, like he had touched a nerve amongst the party faithful, which made one want stand up and begin singing Land of Hope and Glory. I feel his image would be much improved if people realised that “Iain Duncan Smith hasn’t actually been offering up human sacrifices to Adam Smith in the basement of the Department of Work and Pensions,” as The Telegraph put it.
However, of all the speeches that day, Theresa May’s got the most attention, and rightly so. For me, it felt as if every minister had toned down from the rhetoric of last year’s pre-election conference, except for Mrs May, who opted instead to up the ante which, though it sat well with the party faithful, did not chime as universally outside the conference hall as Osborne’s or Boris’ speeches. Some suspect her of trying to use it as a springboard for a future leadership bid, but it seems unlikely to me that the party will choose her to lead them into 2020.
The audience warmly received Zac Goldsmith, though there was a sense that he was merely the warm-up act for the Mayor of London. Boris’ speech was probably the best of his career to date. He talked on matters that ranged from the protestors outside whom he called socialists with “vested interests and, indeed, interesting vests,” a clear quip about Corbyn’s sartorial taste, to the cutting of child tax credits, his opposition to Heathrow expansion, increased life expectancy for Londoners and his proximity to hookers whilst playing rugby at Eton.
His was without a doubt a leadership bid, and you didn’t need to be a political analyst to see it. He made honeyed overtures to both the Tory heartlands and to the floating voters who always decide an election, consciously trying to seize the centre ground and embody the one nation appeal that the party has been trying to emphasise in recent years.
There was much talk at conference of George Osborne being a serious contender for the leadership, but most members are still of the opinion that Boris will be Cameron’s successor for the simple reason that, when photographed, he doesn’t look like he is diabolically plotting something, and that he can stand properly on a stage.
The final day of conference had a completely different feel compared to those previous. The usual relaxed atmosphere had gone. People queued for over an hour to get a seat in the main hall which today was focusing on Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, followed by the Prime Minister. With the assembly elections coming up next year, Andrew Davies and Ruth Davidson both brought great energy into the hall, the latter being one of only three speakers at the conference to receive a standing ovation as she entered the stage, a testament to her popularity. These two speakers however, while both giving excellent speeches, were completely eclipsed by the Prime Minister.
He entered the room to thunderous applause and cheering, having to signal four times for the crowd to stop applauding and take their seats. When he eventually did get on with his speech, it was not until the end that any of us quite realised the gravity of what had just happened.
As the first majority Conservative PM in eighteen years, his speech went down so well, it even received praise from many left-leaning journalists who normally see Cameron as some kind of incarnation of the Antichrist. In my view, he showed himself to be the true ‘heir to Blair’ by taking on such evils as racial inequality, gay rights and lack of social mobility, parking his tanks firmly in the centre ground from which Labour retreated upon its election of Corbyn last month. His comments on Corbyn received a standing ovation, and he has successfully set the government up as the antithesis of the protest group that is now Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.
As the conference wound down, mostly unaffected by the “nose-ringed crusties” outside, the centre ground of British politics was firmly occupied by the Tories. Boris looks poised to become leader, and the future looks very bright indeed as Labour head down the path to electoral oblivion. But judging by the protests outside the conference, they won’t go quietly.