Tories gather for a funeral by the sea

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Newspaper editors are staying away in droves, a sure sign of the receding tide of public interest. Michael Heseltine, the darling of the conference, is not going, and only one of the scores of ex-Tory MPs who lost their seats in the election is known to be on his way - court jester Jerry Hayes. And he is going as a scribbler for Punch, write Paul Routledge and Michael Streeter.

The Conservatives are doing their best to put on a good show at Blackpool this week, but unlike Labour's celebrity bash in Brighton, their conference is not the most fashionable spot.

However, the British - especially old folk - do love a good wake, and up to 10,000 are expected to flock to the windswept Lancashire coast for a glimpse of the corpse of the Tory party. They have been lured there by fantastic predictions of a miracle to be performed by a new prophet, who will cause the body to revive and lead an exodus out of the land of the Blairites.

If William Hague is an unlikely prophet, Blackpool is an even more unpromising starting point for the promised land, particularly when so many of the faithful are, well, getting on in life. The average age of Tory party members is around 65, as a swift glimpse of the 5,000 "representatives" (they hate being called delegates) in the hall will bear witness. Unlike Labour, the Tory conference is a good place to be old. Less trouble with young whippersnappers shouting down portable telephones. But officials admit: "Our ageing membership is a serious problem." Some of them may not make it to the promised land.

Party sources concede that media interest is diminished this year, which will not come as agreat surprise after the Conservatives' departure from power. The foreign press are thin on the ground. Yet there is still a fascination with the great beast of Smith Square. Can it really be revived? Will Baroness Thatcher get a longer standing ovation than Mr Hague? And will Michael Howard launch positively his last leadership bid on the conference fringe?

The fringe does not promise much by way of entertainment. There is no gay night. Not officially, anyway. You can choose between a number of tired ex-ministers clinging on to a semblance of importance. How about David Curry, speaking on "Is Agriculture Different?" This riveting debate takes place in a bar but you have to pay for your own drinks. Refreshments are available later in the day, when he gives the same speech under the stylish heading "Food, Farming and the Public Interest". Refreshments at Cheryl Gillan's speech on "Women Mean Business" have been "generously sponsored", according to the official fringe guide.

Even the weather is against the Conservatives. Last week, triumphant Labour and its starry-eyed delegates basked in unseasonably warm sunshine by the Sussex coast. The weather forecast for Tuesday is unsettled with a chance of heavy downpours. Much the same may be said of the conference itself. Fortunately, Blackpool's range of attractions has been left more or less intact after the annual Scottish weeks. Representatives could try their hand at lap dancing or, if their physician permits, the Big Dipper rides and the Hilarious Chuckle Brothers Family Fun Show.