Byline: QUENTIN LETTS
CRRRASSSH went the bottles in Manchester early yesterday as they cascaded into a waiting skip. It was breakfast on day three of the Conservative Party conference and the longsuffering staff at the [pounds sterling]180-a-night Midland Hotel had finished clearing away the detritus of another night's crazed networking.
The exhausted barmen had finally locked the optics, pulled down their shutters and sloped off to bed. It had been another great night for takings -- and another ignoble night for the British political elite.
Today, thank goodness, the party conference season ends. David Cameron will speak this afternoon and after that we can all head home.
As a political journalist I am grateful, not from some selfish desire to reacquaint myself with my wife and terriers, welcome though that will be. I am thankful because watching the conference schmoozathon for the past three weeks has left me feeling seedy. Soiled. Outraged, actually.
It is not that I am a saint. I have sucked on the odd sherbet myself. I confess that on Sunday, between the hours of 8 and 10.30pm, your honour, I was given dinner by a friend who left Fleet Street for the PR business and is now a millionaire. So I am not spotless. Father, forgive me, I have dined.
Even so, the level of drinking at this year's conferences has been astonishing. I did hope that, given the state of the nation's economy, they might rein themselves in. But at all three conferences -- not just the Tories in Manchester but also Labour in Liverpool and the Lib Dems in Birmingham -- the evening carousing has been beyond sybaritic.
By day they have talked of cuts. By night they have been Bacchanalian. Grotesque. Ponds, lakes, lagoons of alcohol have been consumed, while the country teeters on the brink of a double-dip recession.
I've seen frontbench MPs in all three parties barely able to speak, so much have they gargled down. The organisers of one conference cocktail party had to employ thick-necked bouncers to stop gatecrashers.
How can this political elite deplore the yobbishness of the recent riots when its own members, the supposed leaders of our society, demonstrate so little self-restraint?
As I trotted down to brekker yesterday morning -- third into the dining room, if you please -- I realised that the system is broken. The party conference game is up, or at least it should be. The sheer decadence of today's party conferences weakens our democracy.
Modern party conferences are all about money. Fund-raising. The parties charge high fees not only to attending delegates, but also to companies taking exhibition space.
Should you be foolhardy enough to mislay your security pass, boy, you get whacked. A friend of mine was told he would have to pay [pounds sterling]800 for replacement accreditation.
Conferences were once held to allow members to decide party policy. It was the rank and file's chance to have a say. Was that not the whole idea of political parties in a western democracy? You joined and you were given a vote.
To make the conferences accessible, they were held in jaunty seaside towns with out-of-season hotel room prices.
Conferences could be quite dramatic events. Lord Hailsham campaigned for the Conservative leadership in 1963 by taking a dip in the sea, and then making a tubthumping speech.
Neil Kinnock, and before him Denis Healey, took on the Labour Left with real courage. Mrs Thatcher cried that the lady was not for turning. Fine oratory abounded.
Some parties were more democratic than others. Labour had votes but certain comrades -- such as the unions -- had block votes.
Tory Party conferences regarded voting as something for fetishists and fifth columnists alone.
The Liberals did hold card votes, but often their party faithful were too …