Thank the Lord this will be the last time conference-goers have to endure the hellhole that calls itself Blackpool. The last time I stayed in a Blackpool hotel at a party conference was in the mid-1990s. I woke up at 2 a.m. on the first night covered in sweat. I hadn’t been indulging in any, er, nefarious activity and didn’t feel ill, but I eventually worked it out. The caring Blackpool hotel owner had thoughtfully put rubber incontinence sheets on the bed. Now I am sure some people would pay good money for that sort of thing, but I decided to check out the next morning. Each time I have gone to Blackpool since then I’ve stayed in the gloriously named Ribby Hall Holiday Village, a sort of modern-day Butlins without the red coats, located a few miles outside the town that even the locals dub Chav City. As a conference centre, the Winter Gardens remains stuck in the 1950s. As a blogger, an internet connection is a must for me at any conference venue. I rang the Winter Gardens to ask if they had wifi. I really don’t know why I bothered. I might as well have been asking for the availability of a nuclear physics lab. For the next few years the Tories are off to Birmingham and Manchester. I long for the day when Cardiff has enough hotel rooms to attract a conference of this size. It’s one of the most vibrant cities in Britain.
Life as a blogger at a party conference can be weird. My blog has about 50,000 readers (nearly as many as The Spectator!) and all of them seemed to be in Blackpool. People find it odd when I say I’m actually quite shy, so I don’t always find it easy to react to people who tell me how wonderful they think my blog is. I mean, how would you react when someone says: ‘I think you’re an absolute legend!’ But in the blogosphere you make many enemies as well as new friends. You’re either too sycophantic or too disloyal, too shrill or too friendly. You’re too right-wing or not right-wing enough. There’s only black and white, no grey. Virtually every day I get called a fascist **** or worse. My parenthood is regularly called into question. So why do I do it? Because blogging is a liberating experience and it’s a way of saying what you want to say, when you want to say it, and without a media filter. Try it. You might like it.
A few weeks ago I had the bright idea of compiling a league table of the Top 100 Most Influential People on the Right. The Telegraph has been running the list all week, culminating with the Top 25 on the day David Cameron (the number one, natch) made his speech. A journalist rang me to ask why I was doing it. He wanted to know what was in it for me. ‘Making a lot of enemies, I should think,’ I replied. I spent the whole conference avoiding the half dozen shadow Cabinet members who didn’t make the cut, and ignoring the texts and emails of those who complained — in a good-natured way, of course — about their ranking. And you never know who’s behind you when you’re gossiping about the reasons so and so was number 62 or 69. Luckily Alan Duncan has a very well-developed sense of humour.
At every conference there’s always one person who becomes your personal stalker. You see them everywhere. This year mine turned out to be the 13th Marquess of Lothian, better known to you and me as Michael Ancram. Everywhere I went, he went. Every party I went to, he was there. Why should this bother me? It was I who took to the airwaves and the newspaper columns to denounce his recent pamphlet. I called him a dinosaur, Sir Bufton Tufton and God alone knows what else for breaking ranks on the eve of a conference and a possible election. But we never spoke. Either he hasn’t a clue what I look like (probably) or he decided to blank me (unlikely — he’s too polite). I wrestled with the dilemma of having a chat with him about it all, but then thought it best to let sleeping dogs lie. What a wimp.
Making a speech at a Tory conference can be a terrifying experience, especially if you discover just before you’re about to go on that you have left your speech in your Ribby Hall Holiday Chalet, several miles from Blackpool. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the speaker’s lecturn to talk about Rwanda, having hastily scribbled it out again. I always think you should feel nervous before a speech like this. This time I didn’t feel nervous at all, and it worried me. I was introduced by Nicola Blackwood, a Tory candidate from Oxford, who called me ‘Britain’s most famous blagger’. Nice. It got a laugh, though, and set me off to a good start. My mother rang me afterwards to tell me how well she thought I’d done — it’s what mothers are for, after all. She said how nice it was to see Gillian Shephard in a TV cutaway during my speech. I had to tell her that it was in fact Edwina Currie. It’s not the first time that mistake has been made.
I was followed by a Burmese lady, Zoya Phan, who made an impassioned speech urging international support for her country. I was not alone in having tears running down my face by the time she concluded. I was glad I didn’t have to follow her.
Iain Dale’s online conference diary can be read at http://iaindale.blogspot.com