The conference season is a long-established ritual of British politics: part theatre, part drama, part soap opera. For many, it is the highlight of the political year.
The ups and downs of conferences — from thunderous applause and standing ovations to unforeseen disasters and slip-ups — become part of political folklore and can make or break a party leader’s reputation.
Despite being canceled during COVID and curtailed this year by the death of the Queen, caucuses put political parties in the spotlight but also subject them to microscopic scrutiny.
This year, the Liberal Democrats have canceled theirs, due to start the weekend before Her Majesty’s funeral, but Labor and the Conservatives are going ahead, with the fallout from the government’s ‘Trussonomics’ tax gift set to dominate the agenda at both.
Usually the thousands in attendance – MPs, delegates, lobbyists and media – can count on the party spilling over into the convention and drinking into sweaty hotel bars until the wee hours.
But this autumn, just days after the Queen’s funeral, Labor and the Conservatives are promising they will “toning down” at champagne receptions and boisterous karaoke nights.
However, there is likely to be no less drama in the conference room in a year when Liz Truss is set to make her debut as Tory leader and Prime Minister. So here are some of the recent conference highs and lows.
Liz Truss will be hoping she doesn’t suffer the misfortune that befell Theresa May in Manchester in 2017, when pretty much anything that could go wrong happened.
In what has been dubbed a speech in which she fought for her political life, a prankster handed her a P45 that he claimed Boris Johnson asked him to give her.
Then she had a coughing fit. At one point, then-Chancellor Philip Hammond handed her a cough drop and, to her credit, she joked that it was very seldom that the Chancellor gave anything away for free.
But then what could have been a metaphor for her political world collapsing around her, letters began falling from the background behind her. First the F of “for” tumbled to the ground, then the final E of “everyone”.
Out of sympathy, the audience rose at the end of this car crash speech to give her a standing ovation. However, not all. Home Secretary Amber Rudd had to tell Mr Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, to stand up, which he reluctantly did.
Mr Johnson has of course long been the darling of Tory campaigners and has always been greeted at party conferences as something between a god and a rock star.
When he was mayor of London and king afloat during David Cameron’s tenure, the 2012 conference in Birmingham was hit by ‘Boris mania’ as he outshined his Old Etonian rival.
The Tory conference has always loved a glamorous blonde. Think Margaret Thatcher, Michael Heseltine and now Boris Johnson. He may be the ex-PM but he still makes Tory hearts beat faster.
From the moment he arrived at New Street Station in 2012, Mr Johnson was bullied by his adoring fans amid a media frenzy. One of his true believers even had a photo showing him PMing him in 2020. Yes, really!
Party activists, of course, love a winner. Three-time Labor election winner Tony Blair was the darling of his party’s conferences until the 2003 Iraq war.
Alongside the many highs during his 13 years as Labor leader, an embarrassing low came in Brighton in 2000 when he literally felt the heat as his shirt became soaked with sweat during his speech.
In a school bug, he wore a blue shirt instead of a white one. The first telltale signs appeared under the collar, then seeped under his tie down his chest, and then crept down his waist.
At the end of the 56-minute speech, when his jacket opened as he raised his arms, his shirt looked like someone had poured a glass of water on it.
With the speech derided as more sweat than inspiration, the Labor spin doctors claimed: ‘It proves he’s a real man. It showed that when the going gets tough, he gets going.” All very amusing.
But no laughing matter for Labor was the brutal treatment of an 82-year-old Jewish refugee from the Nazis, Walter Wolfgang, by labor administrators during the 2005 conference for molesting Jack Straw.
After shouting “nonsense” during the then Foreign Secretary’s speech about Iraq, Mr Wolfgang, a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament who had joined the Labor Party in 1948, was dragged from his seat.
He was briefly jailed under anti-terrorism laws before returning to a heroes’ reception the next day amid a barrage of apologies, including one from Mr Blair. Mr. Wolfgang died in 2019 at the age of 95.
SIR KEIR STARMER
Heckling is fairly routine at Labor conferences. Last year, Sir Keir Starmer was repeatedly berated by angry left-wing activists in his first in-person speech as a post-COVID leader.
The hecklers, including a former Big Brother candidate, Carole Vincent, and Audrey White, a Liverpool activist who was expelled from the party this year, hailed calls for a £15 minimum wage, attacked Labour’s Brexit policy and called for the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Sir Keir hit back: “Shout slogans or change lives, conference?” This drew a loud round of applause, as did his quip: “I’m used to being hassled at Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesdays. At the time it didn’t bother me. Today it doesn’t bother me anymore.”
But that was a small blow compared to the supreme masterclass in conference heckling delivered by Neil Kinnock in Brighton in 1985 in a speech by a famous leader.
Two years after falling flat on his face on Brighton Beach during his first conference as leader in 1983, Mr Kinnock went up against the Militant Tendency-led Liverpool City Council in one of the best party conference speeches of all time.
Yelling over boos and heckling, Mr Kinnock, led by city deputy leader Derek Hatton, declared: “I’ll tell you what happens to impossible promises… You end up in the grotesque chaos of a Labor council – a work Local council – hiring taxis to scurry around a town, handing out evictions to your workers… You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.”
Veteran left-wing MP Eric Heffer, then a member of the national party executive, stormed off the platform. But the speech was hailed as a triumph, Mr Kinnock’s finest hour and a turning point in Labour’s struggles with the hard left. A year later, Mr. Heffer was elected from the NEC.
Unlike Brighton in 1985, sentiment at this year’s conferences will be comparatively subdued just weeks after the Queen’s death.
But Liz Truss, whose speeches at the Tory conference have been far from a triumph since entering Cabinet eight years ago, will hope to impose her authority on her party after her divisive leadership campaign over the summer.
The new prime minister’s most memorable conference speech shortly after she became environment secretary in 2014 will not be remembered for its high quality, but for a speech so bad that it was mocked on the TV show Have I Got News For You.
“In December I will be in Beijing and open new pork markets!” she explained before a wide, smug grin and a short, awkward silence as she elicited a delayed applause from the audience.
But things got worse. “I want us to eat more British food here in the UK,” she said. “At the moment we import two thirds of all our apples. We import nine tenths of all our pears. We import two thirds of all our cheese. That’s a shame.”
As her Tory critics recalled that 2014 speech during that summer’s leadership contest, Ms Truss defiantly said: “I’m not the most refined candidate.” TRUE. However, that didn’t stop her from defeating Rishi Sunak.
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After Ms Truss’ victory, Tory loyalists will be eager to heal the wounds of leadership competition and give her – and her tax-cut Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng – a warm welcome. But she will hope that the headlines will be about her, not a rival or usurper.
So she hopes that Boris Johnson, the brilliant conference performer who regularly and shamelessly staged her two predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, at conferences, will keep his promise to stay away from the Birmingham conference this time.