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3 October 2017

Everything I learned while trying to get a selfie with Daniel Hannan at Tory conference

Somewhere in a room in Manchester, Ahab finally catches his whale.

By Jonn Elledge

There’s pathos in unrequited love: the idea that someone could dedicate so much time and energy to wondering about the thoughts and feelings of someone who will never love them back, and who barely even hears a word they say.

But enough about the Conservative party’s attitude to the under-50s. I’ve been at the party’s annual jamboree in Manchester, a city one suspects would rather they’d take their business elsewhere, for the last three days. I spoke at a couple of fringe events, tweeted snarkily from the back of several more, and generally tried to get a sense of what the governing party was thinking.

But without a specific mission to fulfil, a specific article to file, I found myself obsessing over an entirely spurious piece of trolling. Having devoted seven months of my life to reading and analysing the thoughts of Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP and architect of Brexit, it suddenly seemed like a tremendous jape to find the man himself and force him to pose awkwardly with me for a selfie.

I’m under no illusion that this was a mature or healthy thing to do: it was just something that struck me as funny on the train up. But when I tweeted about my plan, a lot of other people seemed to find it funny, too, and started getting invested in my success. And so I was committed: I would track down a man who had every reason to hate my guts and force him to pose for a photograph.

That, however, took some time, not least since he declined to reply to any of my tweets asking him nicely if he might meet me. So here are some other life lessons I learned along the way.

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The Tories love Ruth Davidson

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Half the conference auditorium gave her a standing ovation when she arrived. The whole of the room gave her a standing ovation when she left. Then most of them cleared out, which must have made Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire feel brilliant, as he was trying to read a speech at them at the time.

In between her two ovations, Ruth mostly spoke about unity: “We’re not Leavers or Remains any more. We’re just Brits.” This is a message you can only send if you don’t have to get your hands dirty with Brexit negotiations, but the room lapped it up.

Afterwards she was to be seen making coffee for people at the fake Starbucks in a room called the “London Lounge”, just like any other Scottish politician with no ambition to one day lead the Conservative party.

We are no closer to a solution on the Northern Irish border problem created by Brexit

In his own speech, James Brokenshire made clear that there would be no special status for Northern Ireland: it would leave the European customs union with the rest of the UK in March 2019. He also insisted the common travel area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland would be maintained, that there would be no new barriers to crossing the Irish Sea, and no physical border in Ireland.

Short of Ireland following us out of the Customs Union – not going to happen – it is incredibly difficult to see how all these things can be true at once.

People were really keen for me to find Daniel Hannan

Within two hours of arriving in Manchester, six different people had sent me messages about the movements, schedule and whereabouts of Daniel Hannan MEP. Four of them were complete strangers. You guys, I never knew you cared.

The Tories still don’t grasp the wage problem

Over and over again I heard Tory MPs or ministers congratulate themselves on the record high employment rate. This makes for an incredibly competitive labour market, employment minister Damian Hinds argued.

And yet, if competition for employees was so high, you’d expect wages to be rising, wouldn’t you? But they’re not: they’ve basically flat-lined for a decade. And with the pound in free fall, real wages are actually falling. People may be in work – but often it isn’t well-paid or secure work.

“You’ve never had it so good,” strikes me as an argument that will only work when it’s actually true.

Michael Gove thinks he’s funny, for some reason

Labour had a passionate exchange of ideas going on at Momentum’s parallel “The World Transformed” conference. The Lib Dems had open warfare over incomprehensible matters of conference procedure.

The Tories had none of that: instead, on Monday, there were entirely un-spontaneous “contributions from the floor”, in which five carefully cast young Tories (a tech entrepreneur, a pro-Brexit scientist, a Scouser, etc.) showcased what horrors awaited in the Tory party of the 2020s.

And then came Michael Gove. The environment secretary’s first line was a joke about how his return to the front bench showed that the government supported recycling. He stopped to thank the previous five speakers, in the same “look how well I remembered the names” manner he used to use with performing schoolchildren when he was education secretary. Then he laid into the environmental record of the city of Sheffield in a way that referenced Neil Kinnock’s 1985 attack on Militant (“the spectacle of a Labour council – a Labour council! – …”)

There was something very “vice president of the 6th form debating society” about all this. Yes, to the half a dozen people who both got the references and were minded to care, it was sort of impressive. But why bother? Given everything else going on at the moment, is this really the best place to put your efforts?

Daniel Hannan signs books really, really quickly

 “He’s signing books at Blackwells!” someone tweeted me. Before I even got down there, though, the man himself had tweeted that they had sold out (although for some reason, this tweet has gone missing from the record).

 Wow. People must have really been falling over themselves to buy those books, I guess

Some in the Tory party want to get serious about the housing problem…

Some honourable mentions:

James Jamieson, leader of Central Bedfordshire, who expressed frustration his council didn’t have the cash to build more homes, and suggested it might be more sensible to build on some of the scubbier green belt immediately adjacent to London, rather than in commuter towns 50 miles from the city.

Richard Bacon, the MP for South Norfolk, who all but frothed with rage at his party’s NIMBY tendencies, and who described Help to Buy as “deeply intellectually flawed and bad”.

The leader of a Thatcherite think tank, who told me: “I increasingly think the state should start building again.”

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Tories are panicking about the housing crisis, since there’s compelling evidence that the precipitous fall in home ownership is a major factor behind the collapse in the party’s support among the under 50s. And yet…

…a lot of them don’t

There are still plenty of Tories who are far more vocal in their opposition to development than in their support for solutions. And so far, the only significant housing policy coming from Downing Street is yet more funding for Help To Buy, a Cameron-era programme premised on the mystifying assumption that throwing more money at demand for housing will somehow make it more affordable.

The Harrow East MP Bob Blackman summed up the problem when he said: “How do we ensure affordable housing for young people without reducing value of homes people already live in?” Well. Quite.

Daniel Hannan doesn’t know who I am

Eventually I found him: at an “in conversation” event, with Robert Colvile of CapX. I sat two rows back, smiled hopefully at him, and for half a second I thought he’d raised a knowing eyebrow at me. Later when he talked about being demonised by certain members of the metropolitan elite, or how nasty people smirked at his support for the “Anglosphere”, I felt sure he was talking about my columns.

So when I approached him afterwards, I was nervous. Would he have a sense of humour about the whole thing? Or would he just glare and turn away, or even kick off?

Nope. “A ‘selfie’? Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just have a photograph? Oh, very well.”

And that was that. We were done. Either he’s an incredibly good actor, or he simply didn’t know who I was.

In fairness, while introducing myself as an “arch Remainer”, I hadn’t mentioned my name, so perhaps he simply didn’t recognise my face. And there is an outside chance that he knew perfectly well who I was, but also how immensely irritating I would find it if he didn’t, and decided that the best form of revenge would be to act like even acknowledging my existence was simply beneath him.

Maybe. But the most likely explanation is the simplest: that he’s had me muted on Twitter for ages and has no idea what the bloke who trolled him in print once a week for six months actually looks like. That what I thought were coded messages in his speech were, in fact, a sign that I had gone stark raving mad.

Ahab caught his whale in the end – but it destroyed him in the process. And the tragedy is, it never even knew he was chasing it.