Conference Season: for people watching it on telly, it is noise coming from Huw Edwards’s face, with pictures of people waving. For the rest of us, the devil has blown into town. First come the Lib Dems, in Brighton — the only party sentimental enough to think of candy floss and helter skelters and then of politics. Lib Dems are damp, think damp, love damply: they haven’t been happy since 2010, when power fell on them like a book. Power disorientates them; they have the bewildered look of sheep forced to do algebra. They hate the Tories in their damp way, and only really sit up for Palestine, suddenly aggressive herbivores. There is a party: the Lib Dem Glee Club, in a cavernous room in a hotel, with pink light that makes everyone look like pink zombies, but knitted. A song book is offered — covers rewritten with Lib Dem lyrics; it is probably their manifesto. They stand and sing; an MP arrives, tells how he was locked out of his room naked in Jerusalem. They do not listen. They only want to sing the ‘12 Days of Coalition’ song: ‘On the first day of coalition the Tories gave to me, a ref-er-en-dum on AV. Which we lost!’ This seems to make them happy.
Later Clegg stands under a sign that says ‘Fairer Tax in Tough Times’. I would have gone for ‘It’s complicated’. Clegg’s very regular features are tweaked with self-righteous pain. The party treats him like a Zionist who is also their cousin, or a dog who made a terrible mistake; as he leaves the hall I imagine laser dots on his back.
For the press, of course, the struggle is to make this sound more interesting than it really is. In the media bunker, whispers harden into facts; trivia is gobbled and excreted; crazes occur, as at school. None of this is easy. Conference used to be exciting; there were struggles and feuds and Michael Heseltine’s hair. No more — conference speaks to the nation; dissent is hushed and worse. The media peer through the cracks.
Labour: Manchester. En masse, the Labour party looks like a Next warehouse wearing people. Rumours are of the dullest kind — Alastair Campbell may stand as an MP; Ed Balls and Yvette dance, but not very well. Ed Miliband moves through the exhibition with the nervous jog all leaders use, jogging away from questions and splits, jogging away from his brother David, his portable Esau. Labour is the same as the others, the leader bubble-wrapped in space. Few approach without permission these days: The Party Is United. Ed looks better; the problem teeth, so like Keira Knightley’s, seem less prominent, the eyes less pleading. Even so, the chat buzzes on — is Ed too weird to lead? Too weird to save? Too weird to make 20ft high and airbrush? Would it even help?
And then the speech, heralded as genius, because he did not fall over and bite the podium — the media speaks in superlatives, because OK is not a story. Watching Ed speak, in truth, is like watching the Labour party carry a jigsaw across a room upright, hoping it will not collapse. It doesn’t: he emotes, speaks, mentions dinosaurs, and says ‘Come together,’ which should be a banned phrase. The jigsaw holds. The election campaign starts.
And so to Tories, Birmingham, to a shopping centre with no shops. The line is ‘Britain Can Deliver’, which is a bit postal. The Tory party, it seems, has relapsed on nasty; only the hard ones are here, hungry for — well, I can’t say I know. The men are, on the whole, face-meltingly ugly. One man’s face is simply a hole with another man’s face in it; there is Channel 5 obesity, scrofula, explicitly self-hating hair, possibly rabies. There are women too, beautiful ones, plucked from Russell Group universities, to be bent over desks and given pencils; for some women, conference is a dating site, which may explain the Tory party’s record on women. Tories legislate for their wives and mistresses. Here a seduction begins with the words, ‘I was at a [postal vote] count….’ Sex happens — for some delegates, conference is a holiday to sex. You see them wrapped around each other outside the hotels, tongues flapping. It has to be revenge. They smoke, and sweat guilt. What to do? We eat cupcakes at the Sky party, with politicians’ faces iced on. It feels weird.
Osborne speaks in front of the Tory Tree, now wrapped in a Union flag. I once spent an entire Tory Conference (I think it was Bournemouth, 2006) asking people what they thought about the Tory Tree. Mostly they hated it; David Davis moaned it didn’t bend to the right, but he loves a pun: ‘DD for me!’ Osborne, pale as a bleached shell, insists he is right about everything, will go forward, not back, and endorses fracking. The Tory Tree is now the Fracked Tree; behind him, it seems to wince. Osborne is a peculiar creature, made for a bat-cape; he is now the Tories’ Peter Mandelson, a parody of evil, existing to draw the poison from Dave. I nonetheless suspect he leaks tears at midnight. Osborne ends — his standing ovation is really people getting up and leaving.
Boris rolls in, the calculating sponge. He is met at Birmingham New Street, with screams of Bor-is, Bor-is and a media scrum. The last man to inspire such homoerotic hysteria was Michael Portillo, who briefly loved it, and then ran away. Boris comes to the mayoral victory rally, Lord Ashcroft’s creature; the room rises to greet him. A video of Boris bicycling is shown — ‘This Was Your Life’. Someone told me that Boris never laughs — not really. He is too controlled for that. He impersonates Arnold Schwarzenegger, calls London Labour ‘Semi-reformed Marxists and Chateauneuf du Pape tax minimisers and bendy bus fetishists’, which is a good line. I wish I’d written it. He asks a Big Society question — who volunteered for the Olympics? Maybe five people raise their hands, out of a thousand. Tories are frightened, shrill, they know the polls are against them; Boris soothes them with his jokes and his blond emptiness, a hollow messiah onto whom you can project anything. Later I see him, pursued by the press and peered at as an oddity, as he goes on Sky News. Do I see fear — a boy who has climbed too high up a beanstalk? Tories either hate or love him. He can take the country, but not the party, they say — or he can take the party, but not the country. From all this sweaty -fretting, conference is beginning to smell.
And here is Dave, Nice Dave with the soft hands and gentle voice, Handsome Dave with the good suit, Dave the private gynaecologist as someone wrote, still the party’s biggest asset, despite Boris’s devious flapping.
The Prime Minister walks around, still tall and soft in face — his handsomeness is -striking here — but the face is oddly hurt. The media scrum attacked him earlier, asked if he was jealous of Boris; his politeness was agony to watch. When he walks into the hall to hear Boris, and slips into the eighth row, with two Asians behind (for the -photographs, you see) he is applauded guiltily; his party knows they are committing adultery — but it doesn’t mean anything! Boris tells him Happy Birthday from the stage, nastily; -Cameron gives a wave, flat palm out, seemingly sincere (that is his particular quirk) and Boris gives his cold stare. I would not like to face that stare. He says he is loyal — ‘I know David Cameron can win in 2015, blah’ — and ruins it by reminding us that Dave couldn’t translate the words Magna Carta into English. From the gallery, I can see Dave growing red, like a crushed strawberry, the good schoolboy caught out in a mistake. Boris repeats his jokes from -yesterday, talks about buses. He is strangely inauthentic when talking of policy, a doll given the wrong mouth.
When it is over, no one is wiser.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012