Here comes King Tony Tony's party rocks Brighto

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The Independent Online
This Week's gathering of the Labour clans will be the largest domestic conference staged in this country, attracting at least 23,000 people to take part in, savour and report on the crowning of King Tony.

With locals and tourists on the seafront soaking up the late summer sunshine, Brighton has slowly been turned into a vast arena of celebration, with hi-tech security to match. All around the conference area, the unmistakable message from scores of posters stares out: New Labour, New Britain.

The resort has clearly been taken aback by the level and impending fervour of the occasion. "It's like a siege town," said local businessman Peter Barrowcliffe as he watched the erection of crash barriers outside the Grand and Stakis Metropole hotels. "I have seen many party conferences but I have never seen anything on this scale before."

So great has been the clamour to be present at the first Labour government conference since 1978 that Brighton's overflowing hotels and guesthouses cannot cope with the demand. At least 150 beds have been made available at the University of Sussex campus just outside the town, forcing the university authorities to delay preparations for the new term.

A similar number of arrivals are being lodged with local residents in a "home stay" scheme, while others will be staying in hotels at Gatwickairport and even Eastbourne - scene of last week's conference of the Liberal Democrats.

Martin Sirk, head of tourism and conferences for Brighton and Hove council, said the greatest squeeze was on accommodation for Tuesday night: "Everyone wants to be in town for Tony Blair's speech."

Demand had been unprecedented, he said. "We know that the level of interest is 50 per cent higher than two years ago, when Labour were last here. "We believe it is the largest domestic conference ever to be held in the UK."

The push for exhibition space from organisations - Virgin Travel and Sandoz Pharmaceuticals are among first-time corporate exhibitors - has forced Labour organisers to book an extra 1,000 square metres of space in the Stakis Metropole Hotel, where Mr Blair and his entourage are staying. Labour's is the largest political exhibition in Europe, and could be even larger: on top of the 150 exhibitors there was a waiting list of 60 frustrated organisations unable to take part. For the first time, the Football Association will be there, promoting the English bid to stage the World Cup in 2006.

The huge number of fringe meetings - some of which began last night because of pressure on time and space - has also persuaded Labour officials to provide a separate Fringe Guide for delegates as well as the usual Conference Guide.

Some of these gatherings will occur in the Odeon cinema next to the Brighton Centre, and on Tuesday its six screens - currently showing, among other films, The Full Monty - will carry the whole of the Blair speech to those unfortunate delegates forced out by lack of space.

In a sign of the unprecedented importance many attach to this year's conference, some of these delegates may well be evicted because of the presence of 40 "captains of industry". They are reported to be paying pounds 750 each for the chance to spend Tuesday with Tony; at a lunch, for his speech, a cream tea and later a gala dinner.

The policing and security for the week - carried out with Group 4 Security - will cost pounds 2m, part- funded by the Home Office. Around 1,000 police and civilian support staff will be involved in the operation as security is stepped up to the level expected for the conference of a governing party.

For Brighton, the week is a heaven-sent opportunity to promote itself as a major conference centre before the eyes of the world's media. It will also pump at least pounds 5m directly into the local economy, through hotels, restaurants, taxis, and food and drink suppliers. There is certainly a sense of excitement and expectation," said Mr Sirk.

Not everyone, though, is quite so content. Some disgruntled Tory voters have wandered past the workmen erecting posters and temporary buildings, hurling occasional abuse. "It's all a sham, you'll be out in five years' time," snorted one elderly man.

One of the sub-contractors was also scornful of the hype and promotion of the Labour message in posters and the "arrogance" of the arrangements. "It seems to be designed just to impress," he said. "There's a feel of Nuremberg about what's going on."

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