Ten Years ago to the day I was, for the one and only time, at the Tory Party Conference. In fact this was the only party conference I’ve ever attended. I had applied for and won a bursary to cover the conference cost, hotel food and travel expenses, from NCVO. The only requirement was to write a blog about my experience. The blog was on the NCVO website for many years but has recently been taken down. Thanks to the magic of the wayback machine I have found it again and reproduce it here for posterity.
I should add that only a few weeks before this I’d had my first vestibular migraine attack, though I didn’t know it at the time. I still remember that Pendolino journey. Ugh.
An early start today to get up to Manchester for mid-morning. Mercifully the tube is a bit cooler than of late and running smoothly. First time on a Pendolino – it’s fast and furious (leaning into the corners like a motorbike). I feel a bit sick.
I wander up to the main conference centre to soak up the atmosphere – it is strangely muted. I was expecting more of a protest outside but it’s calm. The main conference centre’s a large space and feels a bit like a hangar. I head off to check out a fringe event but the room is so hot I dip out and meet up with the NCVO staff and the other NCVO bursary winners.
Straight off to The Palace Hotel for a fringe event on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), organised by the planners body the Royal Town Planning Institute. Chatting to two people sitting next to me, who agree the NPPF is ill-thought through – turns out they’re both developers. Bob Neill the planning minister is resilient on the NPPF, but accepts the need for a transition period to the new system. Neill claims most criticism of the NPPF is “well wide of the mark”.
Off again for the NCVO roundtable with Nick Hurd and NCVO chair Martyn Lewis. The minister is friendly and agrees charities should be campaigning, give governments a hard time and irritate them – this is all part of a democracy. I suggest Francis Maude doesn’t agree, judging by his language in the Inpendent on Sunday. Bigger charities like Cancer Research UK and Keep Britain Tidy also attend and question the minister. It’s good natured but gets quite lively.
NFU event ostensibly about sustainable farming. It has no surprises, though I have an entertaining conversation with a couple of farmers who are at the core of Eric Pickles’ local party in Basildon. Jim Paice suggests badgers and bats have far too much protection and a long-term wildlife management strategy is needed to get away from the species by species approach. There is a small anti-badger cull demonstration.
Miss out on the 8am fringe events but spot that Boris Johnson is talking in the main arena at 10am. How could I miss that? The arena is pretty full (though we are encouraged to fill up the seats at the front for the cameras – I demur). Jeremy Paxman slips in at the last minute and sits next to me. Boris is typical – buffooning, ebullient, declamatory, extolling his version of one nation Toryism (but the nation is London, not the UK). He verges on demagoguery and plays the audience effortlessly, even giving a roll call to places around the country that have provided things for the Olympics (he calls for a snap Olympics – to get it over and done with), including rhubarb used to stain some decking. He slightly loses his thread as he doesn’t know where the rhubarb came from (the rhubarb triangle presumably) or who the rhubarb rubbers are. Paxman snorts quietly – he may be laughing or snorting derisively – it’s hard to tell. I suggest to him afterwards the whole speech was a lot of rhubarb and he chuckles.
Have a nice catch up with colleagues from Woodland Trust – they are experts in schmoozing MPs; I have public affairs envy.
The next fringe event is in Manchester Town Hall. This event is a water All Party Parliamentary Group event on the water white paper. The main point, though, is to catch Richard Benyon MP afterwards so I can ask him some grassland questions.
Unexpectedly it turns out to be an excellent fringe event. I asked my first conference question about water companies paying farmers to manage their land more extensively, and how this squared with sustainable intensification (ie it doesn’t). All the water company chief execs agreed payment for catchment management should be universal, upland and lowland. Benyon agreed but didn’t answer the sustainable intensification question.
I wandered back to the main conference area with Benyon but he had to dash off for another meeting so we then suggested to meet later to talk through my questions.
I bump into my old mate Ruth Davis from Greenpeace. We meet Benyon at 3.45pm as agreed and I put my points to him. He’s receptive and asks me to send more detail by email. Ruth also gets her point across about Spanish crime families and illegal fishing. Benyon dashes off and Ruth is off to meet Greg Barker, the climate change minister. I say hello to him and remind him of his meeting with my chief exec next week about carbon storage in meadow soils.
The last fringe event for me is the Daily Telegraph/National Trust event on the NPPF. This could be the high point of the conference. Fiona Reynolds (NT) and Shaun Spiers (Campaign to Protect Rural England) vs Oliver Letwin and Charles Moore. Turns out Moore and Letwin were at Trinity Cambridge together and are a couple of heavyweight intellects. Geoffrey Lean is an allegedly neutral chair. Just as the debate gets going I have to leave to get my train.
Overall I found the whole experience very rewarding. The biggest benefit is having the opportunity to talk to ministers without the intervention of civil servants – that was extremely valuable. Also, fringe events can encourage vibrant and open debate within a small group with key players and experts and even with ministers who are listening.
photo credits NCVO London – NCVO Bursary Winners Roundtable – CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82193662