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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 October, 2004, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Conservative conference diary
Clare Whelan
Clare Whelan loves conference time
The Conservatives have promised a different kind of party conference this year, with more input from real people.

But what about ordinary party members who have made the pilgrimage to Bournemouth?

Here is Lambeth councillor, and member of the Tory Reform Group, Clare Whelan's conference diary.


Thursday 7 October

Mad dash around the fringe meetings on the last night of the conference. The Fawcett Society, Pam Parker the Conservative Women's Chairman and Alan Duncan all deliver a powerful message on how we cannot be successful without the women's vote.

Then into the London Reception. Excited that the Conservatives have recently won a council seat in Tower Hamlets. A good sign that the Conservative Party is on the up and the Labour party is losing favour.

Dinner with local government colleagues. I am keen to get tips to take back to Lambeth on how a really good local authority is run from Simon Milton Leader of Westminster and Sandy Bruce-Lockhart Leader of Kent - two of the best councils in the country.

Margaret Eaton, leader of Bradford Council asks me to go with her to the Pakistani reception and then finally into candidates' association reception. Fingers crossed next time I see many of these people they will be here as MPs.

The last morning and thoughts begin to turn to home. One last tour of the stands around the conference centre. They are numerous and vary from Conservative party stands like the Conservative Disability Group, the Conservative Animal Welfare group, charities like the RSPCA and the British Heart Foundation, lobbying groups, then there's the Post Office, Ordnance Survey, and so it goes on.

Entirely possible to collect a whole year's worth of pens and post it notes should you want to.

Is it healthy being a councillor? Regular meals are a rarity, little time off and lots of sitting in meetings. I've been worrying about this. One of the stands is offering a free health check. Relieved the find the blood pressure and cholesterol are ok.

Caroline Spelman's local government speech is excellent. She is a good friend of local government.

It's been a good conference. Better than expected. I've enjoyed seeing old friends and meeting new people. It's been fun travelling up and down seafront on the seaside train between the conference centre and conference hotel. The Party seems in good heart and gearing up for the General Election.

Will go off to hear the Michael Howard give the final speech of the conference.

Then one final stop at the Blackpool stand to find a hotel for next year's conference. I can't wait.


Wednesday 6 October

Its only Wednesday but my feet hurt and I am going hoarse. Too much walking and too much talking. There are so many good fringe meetings and interesting people to meet but it is beginning to take its toll. Resolve to listen more and speak less.

Lucky afternoon yesterday. Did a political quiz on the Electoral Commission stand and won an anorak. Useful as it turned out - it was pouring with rain as I left the Conference centre. Unpacked it and put it on. Printed across the back is "I'm a political anorak". Sad but true.

Early evening and popped into a fringe meeting where a blonde and beautifully manicured Ann Widdecombe was telling the audience that democracy isn't dead but is certainly having a real snooze. Ann Widdecombe endeared herself one conference years ago when I lost a contact lens. She spent an hour with me searching the floor for it. What other minister would have done that?

Next on to the packed Local Government Association reception. Lots of familiar faces and lots of news ones. Great to be one of a growing number of Conservative councillors.

Also packed was the High Commissioner of India's reception for the Conservative Parliamentary Friends of India. I had met the new high commissioner before at the Oval. He is a keen cricket fan.

I helped Peter Luff MP when he set up the Conservative Parliamentary Friends of India some years ago. It is great to see it thriving. Several parliamentary candidates there including the impressive Sandip Verma who is standing in Enoch Powell's former seat. Not sure whether he would have approved but I do. She's terrific and deserves to win.

Spend too long in the bar with friends from my constituency of Dulwich & West Norwood. Terrifyingly they are all younger than me, including the constituency chairman. For many years I was one of the youngest Tories around. It's not just that I'm getting older. The party is, I am pleased to say, getting younger, particularly in London. Gives me hope for the party's future.

Spend part of the morning handing out the Tory Reform Group's magazine Reformer. It's a good excuse to chat to friends. David Trimble takes a copy. Good to catch up with Jim O'Farrell who was the agent of my former boss, Edwina Currie, in the 1994 Euro elections.

In the conference hall to listen to David Davis. Pleased to hear him pledge more drug rehabilitation centres. The link between crime levels in our area are so closely linked to drugs that tackling the causes is key.

Lunchtime at Conservative Group for Europe fringe with David Willetts. Fascinating but all the sandwiches are gone. Meet a similarly hungry Brian Coleman, chairman of the London Assembly. Over a burger he updates me on City Hall politics.


Tuesday 5 October

As well as being a Lambeth councillor I also run Conservative Mainstream and the Tory Reform Group.

Last night we had our main conference reception. Fringe events are always uncertain things.

You send out invitations but are never quite sure how popular an event will be. No need to have worried last night.

Malcolm Rifkind was the guest speaker and Damian Green was the host.

Ten minutes before the reception was due to begin we had a frantic plea to open the doors and let people in because the queue was stretching right through the hotel and blocking the corridors.

Malcolm Rifkind was brilliant - witty but with a serious political theme about the messages the Conservatives can deliver that will appeal to voters.

I am so pleased that he will be returning to Parliament at the next election as the Member for Kensington & Chelsea.

Went on from the Mainstream reception to the Conservative councillors' reception. It is a pity that the media backdrop for this conference is the Hartlepool by-election.

It should be set against the local, London and European elections were we made huge gains.

We are now the largest party in local government.

Last night's councillor's reception reflected that and there was an upbeat mood.

This morning we held a Tory Reform Group fringe meeting - an informal meeting of Parliamentarians with Tory Reform Group members and friends.

The parliamentarians were Stephen Dorrell MP, David Curry MP, Ian Taylor MP and Damian Green MP.

I tried to get into the Conference Hall to listen to the Leader's speech but it was packed so sat in front of a screen in one of the outer halls.

The most striking thing about this conference is the contrast to the last. This time last year in every corner of every bar and fringe meeting the only topic of conversation was 'the leadership crisis'.

That of course has all gone and the mood is much better, much more constructive and everyone is determined to do their best to win the next election.


Monday, 4 October

Drove down to Bournemouth. Pouring rain in London but pleased the weather improves as I drive South West. I like Bournemouth, I really do, but it is better when it is dry.

Despite the rain I seem to have had a better journey than many of my colleagues. Bump into several people all of whom seem to have been stuck on the train outside Earlsfield with several hundred other people - including a number of the shadow cabinet.

Check into our hotel. Overhear animated - but healthy - conversation going on in the lobby between David Willetts and a couple of other delegates and am reminded why I love conference. It is good to have some genuine political debate.

Great hotel. I have stayed in the same place for Tory conferences for years now. It is conveniently located in between the conference centre and the main conference hotel.

Meet a friend who has arrived at the conference to find his pass application has gone astray. Help him complete another form and he goes off to see if that will work.

Meet Sir George Young, a former Lambeth councillor and contemporary of John Major's when he was on Lambeth.

It has been a breeding ground for many parliamentarians including John Bercow. Ken Livingstone began his political career in Lambeth too, in my ward.

Come across Jonathan Evans, Leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament.

He angrily informs me that Peter Mandelson, in his new role as European Commissioner, has, unlike both Neil Kinnock and Chris Pattern, refused to defend the British rebate.

Apparently Mr Mandelson wants to reserve his position on it.

See James Sproule, the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Streatham, one of the constituencies in Lambeth.

Agree to meet up with him later in the week to discuss local issues.





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