Amanda Platell cringes for Ed Balls

I blame Jack Straw's faux pas, shaking Robert Mugabe's hand, on his new contact lenses

The former adviser to the Chancellor and now Labour candidate Ed Balls-up was at it again at the party conference, demonstrating his excruciating lack of media skills. When asked about the Brown/Blair rift on Channel 4 News, he began: "Well, Gordon Brown and er, um, er, aaah [eyes madly darting around for what seemed a lifetime on live telly], Tony Blair . . ." He got there in the end, but forgetting the PM's name on national television is not a good career move. And parading around the conference late at night with your new baby in your arms is something even TB wouldn't attempt.

To prove what hard work conference really is, I wore one of new Labour's pedometers to Brighton. I took 33 steps without leaving my seat on the train (it appears to be triggered by the slightest movement), 1,225 to walk the five minutes to Late Accreditation and 3,125 to the pasta joint across the road from my hotel. The simple act of lifting a glass of wine to my lips (admittedly more than once) was sufficient to rack the score up even further. By the time I made it to my bed - by 9.30pm, in preparedness for Breakfast With Frost the next morning - I had walked, drunk and rocked myself up to a respectable 7,894 steps, short of the government's daily target of 10,000.

Who says new Labour is a big con?

Party chairman, just, Ian McCartney was out with his team of advisers at the Chinese Garden restaurant on Sunday night, putting a brave face on his demotion by the glamorous Alan Milburn. When asked who he was with, McCartney said "my friends". That couldn't possibly be true, because I counted eight of them. Only the powerful have friends in politics.

Jack Straw's excuse for warmly shaking the hand of Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe, was that it was quite dark and he thought it was another African leader. It has ghastly echoes of that old racist comment that you can't tell black people apart because they all look the same. I suspect it was not darkness but vanity that led to this faux pas. Since his Mandelson Make-over, the Foreign Secretary has abandoned his Coke-bottle glasses for contact lenses. They proved just about as reliable in a tight, dark spot as Mandy himself.

John Humphrys braved conference for the first time in five years to try and shame Blair into taking part in a Today programme interview, which he managed to do - even though, when I talked to Humphrys over the weekend at the New Statesman party, said interview looked about as likely as Cherie Blair becoming an electoral asset. A man with the guts to take us into an illegal war, resulting in the deaths of scores of young troops and an incalculable number of Iraqis, surely has the courage to confront Humphrys.

Whatever else conference was this year, it was packed. The waiting list for a room at my hotel was 40 people long. I was keen to stay another night, so my pulse raced at the sight of a sign in the window of one hotel saying "Vacancies". Alas, as I discovered to my embarrassment, it turned out to be for kitchen staff.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Muslim is not a dirty word