Back in the office, I have a few moments to reflect on last week's Conservative Party Conference. I first attended conference in 1989 at Blackpool. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister and I was a candidate for the local council, selected for a winnable seat at the age of 25 and despite having only joined the party three months earlier. A gang of us from Chingford stayed in a friendly but basic guest house and across the road was a property where scantily clad ladies leaned out of the windows beckoning to us when we returned in the evenings. I didn't have a clue what they were offering...
I spent every day in the conference hall and we all applauded dutifully during each speech. I recall my palms throbbing red raw after a session featuring John Gummer talking about agriculture.
Fast forward to 2009...
After Birmingham last year - which was fantastic - I was looking forward to Manchester. I prefer big city conferences with smart hotels and restaurants. You need to walk with confidence, to be noticed, and this is much easier if you know you have a decent base to operate from. You can also decline the rip off breakfast charges and go to Starbucks instead.
I really wanted to like Manchester, not least because I was born in Rochdale so this was something of a home coming. The architecture is really impressive, with a lot of big old buildings dating from the age of industrial prosperity. The Town Hall is something else, an exotic fairytale castle planted right in the heart of the city. They directed the nineties drama 'GBH' here and the building also featured as the House of Commons before filming inside Parliament was permitted. In the seventies the big projects continued, with Piccadilly Square and the Arndale Centre making a questionable impression. Most recently there has been a glut of shiny residential blocks and hotels with the Beetham Tower most prominent.
A wander around town on Sunday evening revealed a young and fun loving population. It wasn't as cosmopolitan as London and some of the rowdy behaviour around the clubs reminded me of Romford on a Friday night. And I had forgotten the rain - it came down in sheets throughout Tuesday, imprisoning me in the hotel bar. I must take an umbrella next time.
The Greatest Show on Earth
Well, the greatest political show for some time at any rate. This year a lot more people attended. The exhibition hall was packed with stands and there was a food market featuring Tesco, Asda and M&S all actually selling things and expecting - shock, horror - to make a profit. Harvey Nicks made an appearance, operating a cocktail bar just outside the conference hall, although champagne was - according to the press - forbidden.
Many more companies, charities and pressure groups were represented, all wanting to meet the people they think could be running the country soon. The Midland Hotel has a large lobby but the seating proved inadequate to support all the impromptu meetings and more tables had to be drafted in on Monday morning. I arrived too late to reserve a place and conducted my own meeting with the chairman of Crossrail standing up in a remote corner. Later I encountered the 2012 gang who stuck an Olympic logo pin in my lapel.
But I was relatively undisturbed. Some candidates for winnable seats reported meeting requests from 200 or more lobbyists, often completely unrelated to their interests or expertise. The assembly had this to a lesser extent a few years ago so now I always ask the lobbyist to prepare an agenda before we meet - this request for a small piece of work ensures that ninety percent take their business elsewhere and I only see relevant people.
It was all a far cry from recent conferences which were shunned by business interests and saw members talking to themselves. I'm in two minds about the situation, really. Yes, we are being taken seriously, but it also feels like the activists have lost something. In 1997 we were in mourning at Blackpool, but we also felt closer to the leadership and the audience were even invited onto the stage on the last day. Not much chance of that now.
We ran our own fringe meeting on Wednesday evening, kindly sponsored by Canary Wharf. It took place outside the security cordon in the Lord Mayor's Parlour, which was something else - a huge room in which you could lose the City Hall chamber, hung with full length portraits of the early Lord Mayors. I doubt we will ever see similar pictures of our own Ken and Boris, displayed for future generations. It took eight years for the GLA to get a portrait of the Queen...
Following last year's successful speed dating event, when 200 people queued out of the door to meet AMs, we decided to follow the same format. Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home was our special guest and MEP Syed Kamall made a surprise appearance. Six Assembly Members made it to the event and activists were delighted to meet James Cleverly, Richard Tracey, Victoria Borwick, Andrew Boff and Tony Arbour. Shadow minister Andrew Rosindell also dropped in.
The discussion was lively and wide ranging, including bendy bus replacement, police station closures, cost cutting at City Hall, and of course members' pay. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of positive initiatives that were suggested and the interest shown by people not just from London, but from across the country. We will repeat the speed dating format next year so book early...