Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Bournemouth

Conferences are fought on the beaches of the English seaside. I was about 16 when I attended one for the first time. I can't remember much about it, except that I couldn't really afford to go. But I did, and I became even more hooked on politics. In those days the great orators were Iain Macleod, Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) and Enoch Powell. Macleod had a fascination to the young, with his great bell-like tones that filled the auditorium. His contempt for socialism was vivid, but it was the parts of his speeches that captured the nicer side of human nature that live longest in the memory. There are two sorts of representatives at the conference: those who have no wish or need to make speeches they enjoy themselves all week - and those who have to (or hope to) make speeches, who enjoy themselves after their speech. As my speech is invariably on the last day, my only freedom is to enjoy everyone else's speeches. The modern technology of speech-making is so artificial. The microphones, the lapel mikes, the camera angles ... and the awful, cheating, glass autocue patented by Ronnie Reagan and used successfully by very few. It's hard to imagine Gladstone reading his speech from an autocue. But Gladstone was lucky: he didn't have to speak to his electorate through the fish-eye of the television lens. He did it the best way - eyeball to eyeball - 5,000 at a time in the open air. The Midlothian campaign must have been fun.

The conference always comes at the end of a busy month. I spent most of September on tour around the country, where I learned how different public opinion is from editorial opinion. Norma came with me as she usually does, although this year the tour had quite a different air. This year the press has invented, 'Stormin' Norma, the Secret Weapon!' (No invention, this. It has been true for years). And so Norma attracted more cameras than I did. This is the first time for years the media has got its visual priorities right.

The European Union had a summit in Dublin - just to make the run-up to the conference as easy as possible. But it had its moments. Mr Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, had flown into Dublin in a very large plane. I suggested that he had brought the deficit with him and he amiably agreed that he had. He had high hopes, he said, of leaving it behind when he returned to Italy. Chancellor Kohl was robust about the Commission, in terms Bill Cash would have cheered. During a dull moment, Malcolm Rifkind reminded me that the Labour spokeswoman, Janet Anderson, had promised more promiscuity under a Labour government. In my day, said Malcolm, reds were under the bed. He's getting old, I think. Good conference joke, though. I left the Council after the meeting, but before dinner. This caused some excitement among more idle folk who didn't bother to find out when I had told the Irish I was leaving early, or why. So the Sunday press proclaimed it a snub! In fact, it was no such thing. I had told the Irish when the date was discussed that 5 October was an inconvenient day (as it was for others) and that I would not be able to remain for the evening. They were quite relaxed about it and the Irish newspapers had reported the matter in low-key terms, without any fuss, before the conference began. I didn't tell the Taoiseach why I left early, but I can now exclusively reveal that it was the weekend of our 26th wedding anniversary and given a choice between dinner with Norma or 15 men, Norma won hands down. …

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