Anyone, especially a senior politician, speaking at a party conference is used to being torn between the pull of two different audiences: the internal party one and the external public one. What interests one often does not interest the other, and what appeals to one can put off the other.
Throw in the way the media filters coverage seen by both the public and by party members around the country, via well established clichés (it’s always a split, never a polite disagreement, and rebels are always vocal or senior, never eccentric and irrelevant), and it is no wonder that many a politician has returned from party conference cursing the failure of their message to get across to the right people in the right terms.
Many a speech that has gone down well in a conference hall generates negative headlines, and many a speech — especially one from a Labour leader — that has met with hostility in the hall has gone down well with the wider public. The walk-out during Neil Kinnock’s famous 1985 anti-Militant conference speech, for example, if anything helped its wider popularity.
But now we have a coalition government, there is an extra factor to muddle the communications mix even further: negotiation between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. What a minister says at their party conference is not only a message for their members and their voters, it is also part of a public negotiation with ministers of another party. And just as in negotiating in any other job, simply stating your bottom line and leaving it at that is rarely a good negotiating strategy.
Cynics may already be applying several pinches of salt to the words of ministers, whether given at party conference, in Parliament or on breakfast TV at some ungodly hour. But however many pinches you currently apply, add an extra one for the new negotiating factor.
Mark Pack is co-editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and in his third decade of conference-attending.