O come all ye faithful

Wind-turbines turn to face the wind. Sunflowers turn to face the sun. Will the British public turn o

I don’t know whether it was the stark lighting in the ballroom of the Winter Gardens at Blackpool or the giant backdrop of green trees and blue sky, but when George Osborne strode out onto the stage soon after mid-day, he looked perfectly plausible as a Chancellor-in-waiting. He seemed taller, a bit heavier, his voice fuller, more authoritative. What’s more, he had some real red meat for an audience desperate for some solid fare.

When he told the Conference he was going to exempt houses worth up to £1 million from inheritance tax, there was a sudden current of excitement in the hall. A well-dressed lady, possibly from Kensington and Chelsea, sitting near me groaned: “a million isn’t nearly enough!” She probably hoped, as others did, that Osborne would promise to abolish IHT altogether. But for most people Osborne’s pledge on death duty, coupled with a promise to remove stamp-duty for first-time buyers of houses costing less than £250,000, pressed all the right buttons.

Will the Osborne bounce and the anticipated Cameron bounce tomorrow be enough to counter the Brown bounce? Certainly, here in Blackpool, election fever is in the air. I had a drink with David Heathcoat Amory, long-serving MP for Wells. “Wells is ready” he told me. “The posters are printed!”

Heathcoat Amory believed that foot-and-mouth could throw a spanner in the works. “You can hardly hold an election with the country in lock-down mode.”

For the afternoon social policy debate, I found myself sitting next to Orlando Fraser. As the delegates gathered, he surprised me and others nearby by shouting “Cameron, Cameron!” and gesticulating vigorously. Orlando has never been backward about coming forward but it turned out on this occasion he was trying to attract the attention of a gentleman called Cameron Watts, a stalwart of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice.

Orlando has been chairing one of the policy panels. Many of us hope that, after having fought a brilliant, though ultimately unsuccessful, fight to regain North Devon from the Liberal Democrats, Orlando will soon return to the fray. If Boris becomes Mayor of London on May 1 next year, perhaps Orlando could have a shot at Henley?

Talking of Boris, I have to admit to my shame that I missed his apparently well-received speech to the Conference. Multi-tasking, I was in Paris where Leo, one of Boris’ brothers, was celebrating his 40th birthday. But I caught up with my eldest son at a fringe meeting, where he was his usual exuberant self.

“I want a greener London” he proclaimed to a packed auditorium, “a London where more trees are being planted than cut down and I want us all to have the confidence to cycle!”

Sir Roger (Dr.)Bannister (who in his seventies probably still runs faster than most of us can cycle) recently pointed out to me that one of the advantages of cycling is that it restricts the flow of blood to the testicles, thus reducing fertility. Given the degree of “people-congestion” in London, this seems another excellent reason to promote the bicycle. I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to mention this to Boris in Blackpool.

Blackpool itself is fairly bicycle-free. It has those famous trams, gliding along the promenade.Even trams have a carbon footprint, of course. Walking back to my hotel at the end of a long day, I ran into an old friend, Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth. It was a wonderful balmy evening, with the sun setting splendidly over the Irish Sea. Tony nodded approvingly at the cluster of giant wind-turbines, rising out of the water on the horizon. “They turn to face the wind” Tony explained, “just as sunflowers turn to face the sun”.

Will the great British public, I wonder, turn their heads once again to the Conservative Party at the end of this Conference week? We must live in hope.

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.
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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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