Tory Conference: Big business shuns Hague's big week

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The Independent Online
JUST TWO years ago, everyone who was anyone was there. Now the Conservatives know who their real allies are. Businesses and lobbyists who turned up in force to Labour's conference in Blackpool will stay away from the Tory party's gathering.

The Tories still have a friend in Pfizer, maker of the impotence drug, Viagra, though. The firm will have a stand at the conference, though there is no suggestion that this reflects in any way on the state of the party.

The atmosphere will certainly be less vigorous than at last week's Labour conference. While 230 organisations paid for places in Labour's conference exhibition area, bringing in more than pounds 1m, just 51 have booked to be at the Conservatives' event. They will pay about pounds 7,000 each, raising about pounds 350,000.

Among the other companies that will still attend the Tory conference are Camelot, the national lottery organiser, the Connex rail company and Eurostar. Age Concern will be there, as well as the Refugee Council, the Royal College of Midwives and the National Lottery Charities Board.

The Conservative Party refuses to say what its conference costs will be, although both other main parties have done so. The Liberal Democrats spent pounds 500,000 on two annual conferences, while Labour spent between pounds 1.5 and pounds 2 million on last week's event before taking into account sponsorship and exhibition proceeds.

The Tory conference is run by a separate company, CCO Conferences, which filed accounts this year for the 1996 event. In the run-up to the general election, the firm spent pounds 726,775 on administration and recorded a pre- tax profit of pounds 169,170. The 1995 conferences recorded a loss of pounds 14,459.

As with Labour, the main expense is policing, and the Dorset constabulary says the bill will be substantially more than its Home Office grant of pounds 750,000. It will not approach the pounds 3.2 million cost of Labour in Blackpool, though.

Like Labour, the Conservatives have splashed out on a new stage set, which is costing between pounds 50,000 and pounds 100,000. It will be unlike anything conference-goers have seen before, with guests sitting in a series of primary-coloured armchairs to one side. Mrs Thatcher has booked the blue chair for William Hague's big speech.

The number of delegates and visitors will approach that at Labour's conference, with 5,000 party representatives and 4,000 others, including between 1,000 and 1,500 from the media.

Foreign visitors will include the Deputy Prime Minister of Bulgaria and an MP from the Conservative Party of Lithuania.

Mr Hague and his wife, Ffion, will be doing the rounds of the parties during the week, though Mrs Hague's schedule has not yet been released. The big event will be the official launch of Conservative Future, the replacement for the Young Conservatives, which has been wound up. Instead of the YC ball, which used to draw crowds of photographers, the party will take place in Bournemouth's new K-Bar, with room for 300.

The theme of the conference will be "Listening, Learning, Leading."

"We are listening to Britain and learning from our mistakes," a party spokesman said. "After listening, we can give leadership for the future."