Diary - James Naughtie

Hesketh and Soames looked like two turtles crawling slowly up the beach to lay their eggs

The post-match human debris in the foyer of a conference hotel is always a good guide to the state of the party, sometimes better than the platform goings-on. The early-morning body count tells its own story, and in this respect the Conservatives are certainly looking up. This week, there have been no stained T-shirts of the sort once worn by Teresa Gorman bovver boys, and a pleasing decline in the number of elderly Rotarians who've passed out over that last double brandy. (We early birds notice these things as we head for the studio.) Instead, this conference has been notable for a new type of grown-up younger delegate. They come in all shapes and sizes, and colours. There are youngish Tories who are getting serious again. They look as if they could be at any party conference - the trick that Labour pulled off in the late Eighties - and have the happy feeling that they're representing an anti-establishment party (Blair being the boring face of the government that goes on and on). It's a significant

change, and Michael Howard's successor - whenever, whoever - has the makings of a newish party there.

But let's not get carried away. What figure is this lumbering up the hill, slightly stooped as if carrying the troubles of the world, three-piece suit flapping, but watch-chain safely in place? Yes, it must be. A Rees-Mogg! Jacob of that ilk. Just as a twitcher trembles at the flash of some rare plumage, you gaze for a moment. You remember that you may not see its like again. And other pleasing remnants can be spotted on the landscape. When Nicholas Soames and Lord Hesketh left the West Beach restaurant on the seashore (oysters, crab cakes, beef, "a vat of chips" and chocolate pudding rolling around alarmingly in both men's depths), they stirred a memory from long ago. This was of a David Attenborough wildlife film, in which two turtles crawled slowly up the beach to find a place to lay their eggs, heaving themselves through the sand together.

Some other diversions were less pleasant. After listening to Lord Saatchi talking about the Marxist influences that still direct Blair (someone really should tell the Prime Minister), and hearing his arresting prediction that it is impossible for Labour to win an election with its present leader - an adman's way of pretending the other kind of cola simply doesn't exist - I overheard a junior frontbencher who was musing about how the party was now being led. Saatchi, Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin were in charge: could they know how Englishmen felt? Say no more. We know what they have in common.

Just when you thought things were getting better . . .

Speaking of Oliver Letwin, he had an uncomfortable encounter with Irwin Stelzer, Rupert Murdoch's American guru. "We must have lunch," said Letwin. Stelzer told him he'd been trying, without success, for two months to get a date from Letwin's office for precisely that purpose. This is the man who lunches and nibbles at Downing Street and the Treasury when he wants; the licensed conduit to Himself. Exit a red-faced shadow chancellor. "I just don't get these British politicians," said Stelzer, before zipping off to scribble an unflattering column for the Times on Letwin's tax plans.

One Labour conference memory remains: the peerless description by Matthew d'Ancona of Alan Milburn's return having come about because Blair was a Lone Ranger who had to have his Tonto. For those of us of a certain age who'd cry "Hi-Yo Silver!" at the bottom of the garden, and imagine ourselves as the masked do-gooder with his loyal Indian sidekick, feather straight up and "Kemo Sabe!" his only words, this was perfect. Blind devotion, a certain rat-like cunning, and numbing predictability. It's the perfect description, and I await the discovery of Michael Howard's equivalent, who has yet to emerge. Here's a funny thing. The Lone Ranger, deliverer of silver bullets and justice, was based on a real man who once roamed the Texas panhandle. And he was called . . . John Reid.

The author is a presenter on Radio 4's Today programme

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The gambler