Springtime for Tories

There was a bounce in the air at Cameron's weekend conference - both on and offstage

Friday

The mood was upbeat at the Sage Gateshead, venue for the Conservative Party's spring conference. Kicking off with a well-attended candidates' reception, William Hague made a speech during which, annoyingly, a mobile phone went off. Usually when this happened in the 2001 general election, Hague would say: "If that's Tony Blair ringing, tell him it's too late to call off the election." The gag has been updated to: "If that's Alistair Darling, tell him, 'No, we haven't figured out what's in his Budget.'" Plus a jaunty ad lib: "It must have been him - it was a boring ringtone." Boom boom.

The events in the main hall were on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Shadow cabinet members took it in turns to give refreshingly short speeches, then sat on four cream armchairs arranged in a row onstage next to small tables with glasses of Gateshead tap water. They didn't look quite as uncomfortable with this soft-furnishings arrangement as they have in the past.

The real stars were the party members, who had a chance to ask questions from a lectern at the side. They were clearly voiced, and mostly to the point, though there were a few strange rambling ones. A woman in a sari used her precious two minutes to boast about her nice daughter. Most odd was a woman who opened with, "My name is . . . and I'm a food addict." She went on to declare, "I've lost six stone." There was a pause as she looked at the half-full hall, waiting for a reaction, but because it wasn't Jerry Springer the party members just stared.

An old lady with a hump, bent over double, took nearly 15 minutes to walk with her stick to the front of the hall. When she was within cane-prodding distance of Alan Duncan she removed the slickest, credit-card-sized digital camera from her handbag and took pictures of the shadow secretary of state for business. Duncan was her "favourite", she told me. I took one of her, with Alan in the background.

There was a bit of a lull in the afternoon as the questions verged on dull. A reprieve came when a pretty, matronly young female in sen sible clothes, sans bra, bounced up to the lectern. A large percentage of the hall woke up. She asked a question about "economic compatibility with Europe". Lots of men over 65 looked disappointed that she wasn't going to ask another question. Or maybe dance.

Amid the audience were a smattering of turbans, some risqué patterned tights and, in the front row, bang in the middle, an absolute corker in a kilt. J B Priestley wrote that Gateshead appeared to have been designed "by an enemy of the human race". Maybe that was true then, but not now. Francis Maude, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, wandered around the Hilton beaming, "It's not Blackpool." He had never looked so happy; he had managed to combine spring conference with some family commitments and prove to his colleagues that new venues should be embraced. Maude was a bit like Obi-Wan Kenobi, satisfied that, after a tumultuous career, he may have helped shape the conferences of the future.

Docked in front of the Sage is the Tuxedo Prin cess. Famous in Newcastle as simply "the boat", this huge pulling ferry has seven nightclubs, but unfortunately it was closed - much to the disappointment of young Tories anxious to party in a venue formerly frequented by Rick Astley, Gazza and the cast of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

Saturday

The shadow minister for family welfare, Maria Miller, appears to be morphing into the Tory chairman, Caroline Spelman: the hair, the delivery. They even seem to have the same jacket. This citrus yellow, boxy number from K Bennett was very popular and was sported by quite a few Tory women, including Shireen Ritchie, the stylish chairman of the candidates' committee and mother-in-law to Madonna.

Advice on how those attending the conference could offset their carbon footprint for their journey to Newcastle led to a few groans from the stuff'n'nonsense seats, but then Hague was back as the light relief. He pulled out all the crowd-pleasing stops, reeling off anecdotes about his mother, Arthur Scargill and "urinary" authorities. They loved him. A few shadow ministers - Jeremy Hunt, George Osborne and Cheryl Gillan - sat at the back on stairs at the side, like cool prefects at the end-of-term show.

Other highlights: somebody shouted that "the north rocks", and a local councillor hobbled onstage in full leg cast and crutches. Just before David Cameron's speech (childcare and the family), the hall was happy and packed as a smart young bunch joined the oldies. While Lily Allen's "Smile" played, my elderly friend with the hump and the flashy camera started her second long journey down to the front.

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet