Technical pause halts the Tory fast forward to the future

TORIES IN BLACKPOOL

It must be something to do with the approaching Millennium. After last week's celebration of newness - new Labour, new Britain, new suits - the Tories appear similarly hung up on what comes next. No less, according to the conference logo, a firework-shaped Union Jack exploding across Blackpool's Winter Gardens, than our nation's future.

Everywhere you looked this future was being embraced. In a side room off the conference hall, for instance, Tory Central Office fund-raisers were coming up with new ways to finance the party in future elections, now Tate & Lyle has taken its cheque elsewhere.

These were ideas like the Smartie initiative. This involved handing out tubes of the sweets with a leaflet, which read: "Eat the sweeties one by one/And when the tasty job is done/Fill the carton with 20ps/Then come return it to us please." Donors will be comforted to know none of their money was wasted employing Seamus Heaney as a copy-writer, then.

Moreover, after Labour's embrace of technology, the Tories are also easing their juggernaut on to the information superhighway. Swat teams of blondes in blue gowns have been handing out leaflets explaining how to switch in to the web. In a party boasting membership with an average age of 60, however, an invitation to surf the net is unlikely to be taken up as most delegates look as though they would be thrown by the pre- record facility on their videos.

But it was Brian Mawhinney who was keenest to look into the future. It was his department that produced the hi-tech stage, a monolith in blue velvet. Above it bloomed the centre-piece of Mawhinney's vision - three giant video screens. Onto the middle screen was projected the subject under debate, and on the outer two were huge images of speakers. As one delegate merged into another, you wondered why they had gone to so much technological trouble.

But that was before Brian Mawhinney himself spoke. No point coming up with all the toys if you can't play with them first. Mawhinney is so forward- thinking a party chairman, he is already living in a time when political speeches take their lead from pop videos. Before he appeared, the lights dimmed and up on the screens spun an artfully directed promo film contrasting the endless winter of the last Labour government with the long, languorous summer of Britain under the Tories.

And when he spoke - veering from assaults on the Today programme to assaults on the Labour front bench - his themes flashed up overhead. "Not fit to govern" was his favourite, the delegates picking it up as he pointed to the words like a pantomime dame. He wrapped up by referring back to his home movie. Or, more particularly, to the Joe Cocker song which sound- tracked it. "We'll lift you up where you belong," he climaxed.

Tony Blair assembled a team of 10 to write his speech. He could have saved his party a good deal of Tate & Lyle's money if only he had realised all he had to do for a sound-bite was tune in to Virgin Radio.

Mr Mawhinney's, though, was a technical tour de force. The only black spot was it started 20 minutes late, due to a technical hitch. Britain's future, it seems, can only start once someone has put the video in the machine.

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