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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 10:17 GMT 11:17 UK
Party conference blockbusters
Feature
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online political staff

The party managers have their scripts ready but in each party conference season there is a spate of seaside reading which would have them tearing their hair out.

A collection of political memoirs
The piles of political tomes are set to grow

Publishers are always looking for "hooks" to advertise new books. Immortal lines such as: "With Tony Blair facing his toughest party conference ever, ex-minister X reveals the secret strains" are par for the course.

A book with controversial revelations might even dominate the conference itself.

Margaret Thatcher insisted her memoirs were only serialised in the Sunday Times after the 1993 Conservative conference, apparently telling editor Andrew Neil that condition was a "deal breaker".

It did not stop early leaks of the book, however, claiming Lady Thatcher had branded John Major an intellectual lightweight. The revelations cast a shadow over conference.

Autograph queues

Iain Dale, head of the Politicos online bookstore, said such books could hamper parties' efforts to keep their conferences "on message".

Labour had been fortunate in recent years that both Robin Cook and Clare Short have published their memoirs after the conference season.

Mr Dale said the bestsellers at the conferences themselves came when top name authors offered party activists book signings.

Ann Widdecombe
Widdecombe shamed Tory activists against Currie's book
Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, for example, attracted long queues of autographs for his signing.

But conference-time publication can also backfire, as happened with Edwina Currie's diaries and their revelations of her affair with Mr Major.

Mrs Currie probably made the right decision by staying away from that year's Tory party gathering.

Mr Dale said he sold only 14 copies of her book in the week. He had ordered 300.

"It was partly because Ann Widdecombe was putting people off, she was shrieking out: 'Have a clean novel, not dirty diaries.'

"She was almost shaming people into not buying it."

Derek Scott
Scott's publishers have talked of censorship
Mrs Currie's sales record was probably also blighted by the fact that many of the "juicy" parts of her diaries were serialised in the newspapers before the book proper was published.

Ms Widdecombe, proud that her novels have twice topped the Politicos bestseller list at the Tory party conference, says whether memoirs prove a problem for party managers depends entirely on what they say, rather than being automatically a distraction.

"It has become de rigueur for somebody to publish some embarrassing memoirs in the week before conference and it becomes old hat," she tells BBC News Online.

This conference season has brought another bumper crop of political books, including:

  • A new biography of Gordon Brown from Tom Bower, whose previous subjects have included Mohammed al-Fayed and Robert Maxwell. Be prepared for another take on the Blair-Brown relationship.

  • Relations between the prime minister and his chancellor, including claims the "obstructive and deceitful" Mr Brown frustrated Mr Blair, feature in Off Whitehall, by former Downing Street adviser Derek Scott.

  • Conservative splits are instead the focus for Tory frontbencher John Redwood, with his new book: Singing the Blues - 30 years of Tory civil war. It is expected to include an account of his 1995 leadership challenge against John Major, and his view on why Europe became such a running sore for the Tories.

  • Former Tory leader William Hague goes back to another era with his biography of William Pitt the Younger, who became prime minister at the tender age of 24 in the 18th Century. Fresh from serialising the book on BBC Radio 4, Mr Hague looks set to do book signings at conference fringe events.

  • Ex-Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn goes back to his formative influences as he recounts his childhood in Dare to be a Daniel. The Weetabix Years were once mooted as an alternative title but Mr Benn told Edinburgh International Book Festival, said: "I have been keeping diaries since I was 15. Weetabix had no objection but it was not available when I was young."

  • Having already charted the relationship between "rivals" Blair and Brown, Radio 4 Today programme presenter James Naughtie has turned to another of the prime minister's controversial relationships. The Accidental American examines Mr Blair's links with US President George Bush - and the way Americans have taken the British premier to their hearts.

  • How the prime minister works back in Britain is instead the focus for The Blairs and Their Court, by Guardian journalist David Hencke and Attlee biographer Francis Beckett.

  • And for Liberal Democrat readers, the The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism has already caused a stir. This collection of essays sees Lib Dem frontbenchers such as David Laws call for the party to recapture free market liberalism.




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