I woke up on Saturday morning feeling utterly miserable. I drank some coffee, read a book, stared at the photo of George Osborne on my bedroom wall… (yes, I know). Why so sad? Because I would have given anything to be in Birmingham for Conservative Party Conference, writes Kirsty Lewis.
I should have spent Friday night and Saturday morning frantically throwing coats, dresses and heels that don’t match into a little suitcase and then filling the remaining space with emergency pot noodles and breakfast bars. I should have been rushing to Euston to jump on a train with my friends for our pilgrimage, our rite of passage, our annual jaunt to what has fast become: our Glastonbury.
If you haven’t been to conference, whether you’re a party member or not, I appreciate that will sound like the most incredibly lame introduction ever. But much like Club Tropicana, at conference the drinks are free. And although it’s October and there might not be much sunshine, there’s certainly enough fun for everyone.
Every time I think back over memories from the last few years, I end up giggling to myself remembering some brilliant anecdotes and stories (none of which should ever see the light of day on this or any other website) and quite honestly – what could be a better mark of a good time?
I miss taking photos with D-list celebs. I miss frantically messaging friends, scouting out which fringe event has the best buffet. I miss giving up trying to find that buffet and having my third Pizza Express of the week. I miss turning up five minutes before the end of a panel event and pretending to nod along while stuffing my handbag full of sausage rolls. I miss drinking nothing but the wine that tastes like vinegary paint-stripper but powering through to delay the hangover from hell until Thursday. I miss politely taking leaflets advertising a fringe discussion ‘just outside the secure zone’ (fifteen-minute walk, three dodgy alleys and a boardroom in a hostel later…). I miss singing Nelly Furtado on karaoke with somebody I’ve decided is my new best friend but who I will avoid all eye contact with until the following year. I miss heading to the main auditorium to be inspired by some excellent key speakers. Sorry – I miss heading to the main auditorium for a mid-afternoon nap.
But more seriously, I have missed catching up with friends that I’ve known for years, friends I’ve met at conference and friends I sometimes only ever see at conference. I have genuinely missed visiting the stalls, grabbing free pens and mints, but also hearing about the work done by Conservative organisations, other charities and companies throughout the year. I have missed hearing from MPs, ministers, journalists and experts taking part in some great panels and interviews – in person, at least.
I remember going to my first conference when I was 18 and finding it so exciting to be able to walk around, meet new people and politicians who at that point, I’d only ever seen on TV. I know we sneer and snigger sometimes but regardless of your party politics, as a teenage political geek getting to chat to a Cabinet Minister or even, god forbid, having a photo with them is an experience that means a hell of a lot.
It’s not just about party members though, young or old. This year will inevitably have been crushing for businesses both inside and outside conference, with the advertisement and revenue party conferences of all colours bring to cities like Brighton, Manchester and Liverpool. My Wetherspoons breakfast bills alone have probably single-handedly kept the city of Birmingham functioning until now.
It must also have been difficult for the variety of associate sub-groups who rely on conference for funding, support and the opportunity to grow their membership. Some, like the LGBT+ Conservatives managed to imaginatively keep our spirits high with their lip sync battle. Others have held Zoom quizzes, virtual networking drinks or have drawn relatively impressive crowds for online interviews and discussions. But as hard as we’ve all tried, it’s just not been the same.
It was great to hear Boris pledge yesterday that by October 2021, we’d all be back at conference, “face to face and cheek by jowl”. So my message to all party members, from all parties, is when we next get the opportunity to get together – let’s really go for it. Let’s make conference season 2021 the best ever. And whatever we do, let’s not put Dido Harding in charge of organising it.
Kirsty Lewis is a senior researcher in the House of Commons and Welsh Conservative member