Beyond anybody's fringe

It's Teresa Gorman meets Norris McWhirter meets Monty Python. Jim White tours the meetings away from the conference floor to hear an array of views all slightly to the right of Michael Portillo
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The Independent Online
The first thing that strikes a Conservative conference virgin wandering into the main hall of the Blackpool Winter Gardens to watch our governing party in action is the noise: the overwhelming sound of obeisance. Cringeing, ringing, all-encompassing obeisance. During sessions that are called debates, but are little more than preambles before cabinet ministers accept their annual standing ovations, speaker after speaker goes up from the floor to the podium to repeat the conference mantra: "I beg to support the motion". And by their Uriah Heep tone, you have to believe they do.

Away from the main hall, in the lunchtime and early evening meetings held by pressure groups and lobby organisations, you hear different noises. In a basement room of a hotel near the conference centre on Tuesday lunchtime, for instance, the air was charged with the sound of one delegate, his voice quaking with barely suppressed fury, standing up to confront another member of his party thus: "The ignorant, out-dated, prejudiced rubbish we have just heard from you does no service to the Conservative Party. What we have just heard is a tirade of abuse against our fellow citizens. Your views, madam, no matter how sincerely held, have no place in our great party. They belong in a fascist party."

Later that day, in a cinema over the way, the seats and aisles were filled with fuming, spewing anger of a different Tory hue. It was directed at a young woman who dared to suggest that without further integration into the European Union, Britain would be finished as a trading nation. "Sit down," bellowed a man from the one and nines, his jowls wobbling over his pin-stripes. "Sit down, you fucking Euro bitch."

Despite the rival claims of the biggest rollercoaster in the world, for real fun and games in Blackpool in the autumn you can't beat the Tory fringe. It is easy to work out where the fun will be had, too. In the fringe programme distributed to delegates are listed dozens and dozens of meetings. Even if free refreshments are offered it is best to avoid "Constituency Computer Services at Conservative Central Office, Royal Mail and the Direct Marketing Association invite you to: 'From Letterbox to Ballot Box' ", and to take yourself off instead to a meeting simply entitled "Immigration" and hosted by the Monday Club.

Anyone expecting to find a Monday Club meeting filled with shaven-headed youth with a fondness for military memorabilia would have been sorely disappointed by the turn-out. The seven delegates (or "representatives" as they are called at the Conservative conference) occupying the front row of seats were so elderly it seemed unlikely they would make it through the meeting without medical assistance: the Monday Club, many will be relieved to hear, is a dying organisation. Behind the crumblies sat a number of sheepish reporters flourishing their note-pads ostentatiously, lest anyone mistook them for supporters. In front of this unlikely collection, on a small makeshift platform, sat Lord Sudeley, Monday Club bulwark, an aristocrat in a tweed suit, the collars of his shirt breaking from the confines of his waistcoat and making an escape bid ceilingwards. He wore the long, disappointed face of one who knew the battle was lost. But then we would all have worn a face like that if we had found ourselves in the same trench as Joy Page, his Lordship's guest speaker.

Mrs Page, billed as a member of the "Immigration Society", was dressed in the sort of joke-shop wig, crocheted hat and twin-set that used to be handed out by the BBC's wardrobe during runs of Monty Python. For an hour and a half she shared her conviction with her audience, reading interminably from a hand-written novella of notes, a work chocker with fanciful conspiracy theories. "There are 300 mysterious men in Europe manipulating immigration policy across the Continent in order irrevocably to alter the blood of this country," she warbled. "And those anti-racist marchers you see in our cities, they are paid to do it by these men."

Here is a list of some of the things she claimed immigrants did: bred too much, abandoned babies, took away our womenfolk, bathed corpses in public swimming pools and indulged in coffinless burial. "This is a very damaging point," she said. "The stench in some cemeteries where these Muslims are buried is so overwhelming that grave-diggers refuse to work there."

As she spoke, a white-haired woman in the front row nodded madly, sucking through her teeth in alarm at Mrs Page's tales of black landlords forcing out their white tenants by hanging shrunken heads in the hallway, or of the takeover of our inner cities by the Japanese Ninja. "They are here," she warned. "The Ninja!"

When this bizarre confection had finished - it seemed it never would - a smartly dressed man at the back sprang to his feet, steam hissing from his collar, and launched a furious verbal assault on her: "mad, dangerous, fascist" was the gist of it. He turned out to be Keith Best, former MP, chief executive of a charity called the Immigration Advisory Service, Conservative Party member and, judging by the look of shock on the faces of the Monday Club members, the liberal spawn of Satan. "What about the marvellous economic benefits our new fellow citizens have brought to our country?" implored Mr Best, assuming for a moment he was arguing with those capable of rational debate. "Oh, gawd," said Mrs Page, rocking back on her heels. "Not that nonsense again." At which the woman in the front row nodded so vigorously her head looked about to spin off.

Afterwards, outside the hotel, like a protege of Alistair Campbell, Mr Best launched a damage limitation exercise. "That is dangerous rubbish going on in there," he told members of the watching press. "Dangerous rubbish. Please do not think that is representative at all, it has no place in our party."

More representative, perhaps, and certainly better attended, was the Freedom Association meeting entitled "Europe: The Battle for Britain", held in a cinema presently showing Apollo 13. Here was a much more youthful vision of the Tory party, row upon row of them, boisterous, cheery, vocal and on average 10 kilos (sorry, 22lbs) over-weight. They were there to welcome the whipless wonders, that colourful Euro-sceptic collective who flanked John Redwood on the opening day of his leadership challenge and made him look sane.

Norris McWhirter, well-known compiler of records (most right-wing Tory, least likely defector to Labour) was the meeting's chairman and introduced the bunch one by one as if they were American footballers: Teddy Taylor, Tony Marlowe, cheerleader Teresa Gorman in angry gingham, each of them welcomed to the rafters. Then each spoke on familiar, Euro-thrashing themes: how Brussels was taking away our power, how our fisheries policy is now determined by countries that don't even have water, how beer is undrinkable served in litres. Their every contention was greeted with yelps of approval, as if this were a service at a Southern baptist church. And the devils, hissed at their very mention, were: the Foreign Office, Jacques Santer and, worst of all, his name drowned in a chorus of boos, hisses and shouts of "traitor", Edward Heath.

As the mood of the cinema grew ever more enthusiastic, it was caught by the speakers on the platform. "We," yelled Nicholas Budgen MP to yelps of approval, "are the storm-troopers of the new orthodoxy." And then, from nowhere, the stormtroopers conducted an astonishing verbal mugging. Norris McWhirter had just laid claim to the record of the most sexist chairman on the fringe ("I always look for a lady to ask a question to Teresa Gorman") when a young woman rose and made a point about the need to be in Europe, apparently scripted by Leon Brittan. Or rather attempted to make it, buried as she was by an avalanche of verbal fury. "Get out, get out, get out," barked a man from the middle of the cinema who presumably wished Britain would do the same. And Tony Marlowe hadn't even spoken.

This is not to suggest that every meeting on the fringe degenerated into disorder and venom. Some, mainly those featuring Norman Lamont, were so sparsely attended that Joy Page and her friends would have doubled the turn-out. There was politeness, too. At the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality rally, the handsome, fresh-faced boys in suits (and Matthew Parris) listened in admirable silence as a member of the Conservative Christian group told them he spoke "for the vast majority of Conservatives who believe that the only true expression of sexuality is the procreation of children". And at the National Consumer Council's meeting on competitiveness in privatised industries, no one tried to lynch the main speaker, Cedric Brown.

It was at the Fringe Revue, however, that perhaps the most succinct summation of this year's conference was offered up. Called "Educating Tony", the revue was, in truth, a pitiful affair: under-resourced, under-rehearsed and, worst of all, under-funny. There was an excuse. Before it started, the pianist revealed that the man who had written and was due to perform most of the numbers was unexpectedly otherwise engaged and wouldn't be in Blackpool ("defected to Labour" was the uncharitable thought of one member of the audience).

Those left in the cast soldiered on, and produced, in their finale, a number to the tune of "My Favourite Things", the old Julie Andrews saccharine dirge: "When the polls bite, when the Sun snipes, when I'm feeling sad, I simply remember my Tory right wing, and then I don't feel so bad." Michael Howard himself couldn't have scripted a more apposite lyric.

Let's hear it for the stars of the Blackpool season

TERESA GORMAN:

her noisy variety of suits in red and yellow was never quite matched by her rhetoric.

Rabble-rousing

rating: 2/5

NORMAN LAMONT:

Brian Mawhinney's platform speech overran so much that everyone missed Norman's fringe piece.

Rabble-rousing

rating: 0/5

TONY MARLOW:

in leaving his famous striped blazer at home he lost his distinguishing feature.

Rabble-rousing

rating: 1/5

NICHOLAS BUDGEN:

his "We are the stormtroopers" rallying cry summoned followers to the anti-Euro cause.

Rabble-rousing

rating: 5/5

TEDDY TAYLOR:

happily lent his name to any and every anti-Brussels fringe group in town.

Rabble-rousing

rating: 3/5

NORRIS McWHIRTER:

his Freedom Association linked up for a record-breaking run with Euro- sceptics and YCs.

Rabble-rousing

rating: 4/5

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