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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 October 2006, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
New conference, new Tories?
The juice bar at the Conservative conference
The General Well Being juice bar is just one of the Cameron innovations

Sketch
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, Bournemouth

What strange new planet is this?

The sun streams through the trees in a perpetual dawn, the colours are muted and strangely soothing, the hum of new technology fills the air.

If this is a Tory party conference, as someone once said in a slightly different context, then I'm a banana.

Or a banana smoothie at the GWB fruit smoothie bar - just one of the many thrilling innovations introduced by David Cameron in an attempt to "rebrand" his venerable party. (GWB stands for General Well Being, by the way - one of Mr Cameron's favourite concepts).

The top selling beverage there is "blue berry thrill", although the usual selection of rather pricey sandwiches and weak tea is available from one of the nearby concession stands - so not everything has changed.

Traditional values

In fact, when you look beyond the heavily branded Conservative stalls and the shimmering green and blue stage set - based on a Midsummer Night's Dream, apparently - with its sexy white catwalk stretching out into the auditorium, you start to see little glimpses of the old Tory party peeking through.

The audience at the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth
There is a traditional Tory look to those attending the conference

The Carlton Club stand, with its portraits of Winston Churchill and bone china plates in patriotic designs, is one highly visible oasis of traditional values.

The delegates also offer a sense of continuity. Like most party conferences the average age in the Bournemouth International Centre is probably well over 60.

Tory members have not, thankfully, been replaced by funky young metrosexuals from central casting (or Central Office). Yet.

But they seem fairly relaxed about their new environment.

Why not?

Opinion is divided about the new Tory "oak tree" logo, which is plastered over every available surface.

"It doesn't look like an oak tree," complained conference veteran Lord Luke, echoing the views of others we spoke to.

But - with the stoicism the party prides itself on - the peer added "the Conservative Party has been going for a very long time and it has had to reinvent itself from time to time".

If I ran prisons there would be no TVs in their rooms and no soft treatment from governors
Tory text message

If it helps win them a general election, the feeling seems to be, then why not?

But it is not just the look of the conference that is radically different this year.

The party has scoured the world for guest speakers - everyone from Oranges are Not the Only Fruit author Jeanette Winterson to John Bird of Big Issue fame - in an effort, party workers say, to relieve the monotony of speeches by politicians, which, are in any case, much shorter than normal this year.

'Exciting'

But the biggest novelty for jaded conference veterans is the ability to beam text messages on to the screen as debates progress - an innovation apparently stolen from reality shows such "I'm a celebrity" or Big Brother - "dave 2 win, he is gr8! Oliver to go first".

You are given a nifty electronic hand set, about the size of an old mobile phone, as you enter the hall and encouraged at regular intervals to share your thoughts and feelings with the rest of the audience through the medium of text.

"How exciting is this!," enthused a young TV-presenter type on Monday morning as he explained the system to bleary-eyed delegates.

The messages - which are sifted for obscenity and silliness by the Tory machine before being flashed on to the big screen - make strangely compelling viewing.

They range from poignant snapshots of urban despair - "every night I am woken by young people outside my house shouting and causing trouble. If the Tories do something about that they will get my vote" - to robust endorsements of party policy: "ID cards are illiberal and a complete waste of money."

There are also occasional pieces of wish-fulfilment.

"If I ran prisons there would be no TVs in their rooms and no soft treatment from governors."

And, very occasionally, moments of delicious irony.

On Monday morning, Miami Police Chief John Timoney was making a speech, in gruff TV cop tones, about zero tolerance policing in Noo Yoik city, when a little message flashed above his head on the screen.

"What's wrong with a clip round the ear," it said.

It made you feel proud to be British.




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