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6 October 2003

Bring back that Tory sleaze

No orators, no sex scandals and "dancing as it used to be" - Quentin Letts fears he will die of bore

By Quentin Letts

One of the better wheezes at party conference time used to be strol-ling the corridors of the conference hotel mid-afternoon, flipping round the “Do not disturb” signs so that they instead read: “Please clean this room.” In the great years of Tory bonking, countless trysts could be wrecked this way.

Ministers would be down to their sock suspenders, muttering, “By God, you look fabulous in that camisole, Venetia/ Pammy/Clive”, when suddenly there would be a knock at the door and the cry of “Housekeeping!”.

The Conservatives start their conference in Blackpool on 6 October, and it is as though a giant “Do not disturb” sign has been hung outside the Winter Gardens. This time, sadly, nothing remotely saucy will be happening. The event promises to be so unutterably boring that it is possible to look back to the days of Mellor and Parkinson and Archer with a real twinge of nostalgia. At least that lot had, well, some balls.

Her Majesty’s Opposition is becalmed. Not since “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has there been such a prolonged spell of inactivity. There aren’t even any albatrosses circling overhead. It’s just awful. Nothing. Rien. Plain nada.

Iain Duncan Smith should face a leadership challenge. Of course he should. The man is the political equivalent of the Austin Allegro estate car that once, briefly, graced British roads in the 1970s.

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Sadly, the Conservatives are currently a party of such limited courage and talent that there is no prominent candidate to challenge the “Quiet Man”. Michael Portillo appears to have stomped off for good, Kenneth Clarke is still game but too stubbornly obsessed with Europe, while David Davis (DD for deadly dull, say his critics) is betraying few signs of decisive despatch – ie, getting out his SAS knife and mounting a night raid on the leadership.

The only Tory MP who is getting his mug around the place is Henley’s Boris Johnson, who is now enough of a celeb to merit an invitation on to Michael Parkinson’s chat show. But Johnson arguably suffers from a surfeit of cherishment – too singular, perhaps, to be accepted as a mature steward of the party’s destiny.

Duncan Smith could do with some sort of opponent, if only to make him seem heroic. Tony Blair has long understood the political value of having a bogeyman, be it Clause Four or the forces of conservatism. But no. IDS will sail quietly through the week in Blackpool with nothing more than a few grumbles about Theresa May and her foolish Brent East strategy, which suggested she had been infected by the no-competitive-sports ethos of loony left teachers.

Blackpool will also struggle by comparison with the excitements of Labour’s gathering at Bournemouth. The Labour conference was so buzzy with intrigue and infighting that the media are bound to find the Tory affair an anticlimax.

Quite aside from the Blair/Brown squabbles, the Labour conference offered some genuinely interesting rhetoric. Patricia Hewitt, I grant you, made a speech of such pulverising tedium that it should be put on a non-stop spool and used to calm Arsenal footballers. But some of Hewitt’s cabinet colleagues, past and present, did slightly better.

On the Bournemouth fringe, Clare Short and Robin Cook were treated like vete-ran rock stars whenever they appeared, while on the main floor of the con- ference hall, Ian McCartney and Gordon Brown showed that the art of emotional lectern-bashing is not yet gone.

It is hard to identify any such orator in the shadow cabinet. Perhaps this is why the Tory conference sessions have been shaved down to afternoons only. They are so short of firepower that the conference programme editors have accidentally printed the page with Tuesday’s agenda twice.

Platform speakers will include the donnish Oliver Letwin on home affairs, the international aid spokeswoman, Caroline Spelman (earnest but bland), the horizontally laid-back Tim Yeo on trade, and dear old Michael Ancram, who certainly puts the “shadow” into foreign affairs. The only name to inspire a frisson is the once-priapic Steve Norris, who always belts out some civilised common sense – but he is no longer an MP.

Let us cast a desperate eye to the Tory conference fringe. Any sign of mischief and newsworthiness there? Nope. There are numerous events on subjects such as “plurality in health provision”, “high skills futures” and “social justice”. Yawneroo. The Tory representatives don’t want this guff. They want to hear tub-thumping cries about slashing taxes, detonating quangos and telling the monster state to take its snout out of individuals’ affairs.

As for the social scene, delights include Sid Little (of Little and Large) appearing alongside the Rat Catchers skiffle group and “one of our party’s best speakers, Trish Morris OBE” at a function room in the Pricebusters Matthews Stand of Blackpool Football Club. Trish Morris? No, I haven’t heard of her, either. The usual conference ball has been dumped this year in favour of a High Society night of “dancing as it used to be, when couples enjoyed the intimacy of dancing closely together without having to shout”. It’s not exactly 21st-century, is it?

To which the answer, horribly, must be: “Sorry, it certainly is. It’s Tory Blackpool, 2003.” The only solution may be to lie down in the path of an advancing tram and ask the driver to put his foot down, hard.

Make it brief, chief. Put us out of our misery.

Quentin Letts is parliamentary sketch-writer for the Daily Mail

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