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Page last updated at 13:17 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 14:17 UK

Why is the Conservative conference always last?

David Cameron

The Magazine answers...

The Lib Dems go first, Labour next and the Conservatives have their party conference last. But why and is there an advantage?

The Tories are always last. Not in the polls, but in the autumn party conference season.

The autumn conferences are a showcase for new policies, as well as a chance for members to organise meetings to debate how the party might change.

It's a tradition since at least the 1950s
Going last allows you to spring unanswered surprises
But going first allows you to frame the debate

The timing of the conferences is a tradition that goes back to the 1950s.

"The order of political party conferences is just one of the conventions of the British constitution," says George Jones, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics.

Political journalist Anthony Howard recalls that the major Labour conference had been at Whitsun - 49 days after Easter - until the 1940s, but the reasons for the rest of the timings is not clear.

Dr Andrew Russell, a senior politics lecturer at Manchester University, suggests that the order may have something to do with party size.

"It does make sense for smaller parties to go first. No-one would pay any attention to UKIP this week, but they did spark some media interest by kicking off the conference season," he says.

Churchill at a Conservative conference at Margate
Churchill had to visit the seaside too

A party's position in the conference season alters how the gathering can be used. The Liberal Democrats knew nothing of what Gordon Brown or David Cameron would propose, but had the opportunity to frame the debate.

The Tories, closing the party conference season this week, don't have a fresh start but do have the opportunity to make surprise announcements that their opponents have little chance to respond to.

"There is an advantage to the party whose conference falls at the end of the season", says Professor Jones. "They get to give their view after all of the others. They have the last word.

"They also have the opportunity to produce a trump card after all of the other parties have had their say.

"There is no advantage to going first, as people forget what is said."

If the Conservatives gain an advantage by always falling at the end of the season, it would seem to be in Labour's interest to try and alter the established order. But a spokesman for the party does not consider them to be at any disadvantage.

"The party that has their conference first can frame the debate and set other parties up for a fall," he says.

Whatever the pros and cons of the established conference order, it does not appear to be about to change.

"All parties are fairly relaxed about the arrangement," the Labour spokesman says.


A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

But while this tradition remains intact, others are under threat. Conferences have traditionally been held in seaside venues - most of them coincidentally beginning with B - like Bournemouth, Brighton and Blackpool.

But times are changing. In 2006 Labour broke two of the rules, not only venturing to somewhere beginning with M, but also abandoning the coast. The delegates clearly enjoyed their experience in Manchester, as they returned there again last week.

This week the Tories can only bring themselves to break one conference rule, venturing inland to Birmingham.


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