Sex, gaffes and silly stunts - it's party (conference) time again

Westminster's circus is heading off to the coast once again. Colin Brown, deputy political editor, presents a complete guide to the seaside shenanigans and strange goings-on
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Bournemouth and Brighton are already dusting off the welcome banners. Armed police are studying their vantage points. The speech-writers are losing sleep. Yes, the political conference season is upon us.

Bournemouth and Brighton are already dusting off the welcome banners. Armed police are studying their vantage points. The speech-writers are losing sleep. Yes, the political conference season is upon us.

Blackpool, land of candy floss, promenade illuminations and horizontal rain, is not on the tour circuit this year for the travelling politicians, partners, researchers and rank-and-file party members who give up a week of their annual leave to be beside the seaside with their leaders.

The three main political parties are keeping to the south coast. First up, Bournemouth, reinventing itself as the surf centre of Dorset from its previous image as retirement capital, will play host to the Liberal Democrats in the coming week.

Next weekend, Labour are off to Brighton, following "the brothers" who went to Brighton last week for the TUC conference and were lashed by gales.

The Tories, like good lovers, always finish the conference season last. They are off to Bournemouth in the first week of October with Michael Howard, taking the rostrum in at the BIC (Bournemouth International Centre) for the first time as party leader.

Lib Dems are all sandals and woolly jumpers, aren't they?

Not any more. "Giant Haystacks" - the hairy hulk who often sat on the front row at Liberal assemblies - has gone, and beardy Tony Greaves is a member of the Lords. The Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, Tim Razzle and the strategists are trying to show they are the serious alternative to Labour before the next election (5 May next year, probably).

This year there are no loopy motions, like banning goldfish from fairground stalls (1992), hard porn for 16-year-olds (2001), boycotting France (when the former leader Paddy Ashdown had a house there), or controversial policies such as abolishing the monarchy (2003), and liberalising dope laws (2002).

Will it be boring then?

Nope. Charley has his tail up, and has established his credentials by making the right call on Iraq. He will do a Q&A session chaired by Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent, at 3.30pm in the BIC on Monday. Look out for the Glee Club, a traditional sing-along session with all the old Liberal anthems, such as The Land (celebrating the dangerously socialist Diggers, who believed we all own it), Gays and Straights Together (to the tune of We Shall Overcome), and The Soggy Democrats (a skit at David Owen and the old SDP).

Why do Tony and Gordon bother going to the annual party conference?

It can be make-or-break for the politicians - Iain Duncan Smith's "quiet man'' speech last year at Blackpool backfired badly and finished his leadership of the Tories. Grown men still feel queasy at Michael Portillo's "SAS'' speech in 1995 at Blackpool, and Peter Lilley's 1992 recitation to Gilbert and Sullivan of his little list: "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list". David Steel is still embarrassed by declaring in the first flush of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the early 1980s : "Go back to your constituencies ... and prepare for government!"

John Prescott still regrets taking the car from the Highcliff Hotel to the conference centre (a distance of 200 yards downhill) in 1999 to save time when he was rushing to make a speech. He blamed his wife Pauline's hair. Tony Blair's sweaty shirt moment was the last time he made a conference speech without his jacket on. Charles Kennedy survived his own leadership wobble at the Liberal Democrat spring conference this year because he was sweating so much throughout his speech. (Is that a viral infection or a hangover?)

Why don't the parties abolish the conference season, like fox hunting?

Conferences can boost party fortunes. Margaret Thatcher was lifted in the polls after the hard-hitting 1986 conference in Bournemouth and went on to win the 1987 election. Mr Blair will use Brighton to tell his party - as he told the TUC - that he is "back'' on the domestic agenda, after Iraq. Labour is hoping to use the conference as the springboard for the general election, but so too are the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. It is also the one week in the year the party workers - the "poor bloody infantry" who stick leaflets through letter boxes - can let their hair down and have a week-long gang-bang with like-minded people.

So there's plenty of sex at the seaside then?

It must be something in the air. One former female television journalist is famous for providing Monica Lewinsky services to a red-top political writer behind the piano at her own television company's drinks party. Two party workers are also said to have had "Ugandan discussions" while on the Big One at Blackpool.

A Sun reporter was so shocked at being propositioned in Blackpool by a gay taxi-driver that he forgot to ask for a receipt for his expenses. Cecil Parkinson resigned from the Cabinet over the disclosure at the 1983 Conservative conference in Blackpool that he had a love child.

Late nights and early mornings take their toll: one respected television presenter stayed up all night, did the newspaper review live on camera at the Highcliff, Bournemouth, and then vomited on the beach.

In the Thatcher era, the young Tories hired their own house and chanted "Hang Nelson Mandela". Now it's more of a knees-up: a kilt-wearing young Tory called Small made the front pages when he showed off his "crown jewels" at Bournemouth.

And punch-ups?

You mean apart from Tony and Gordon ... Usually they involve journalists, rather than our political leaders, although there was a tense scene when John Prescott presented Jon Craig, then of the Daily Express, a real "porkie" pie (lie) in the press room at the Blackpool conference some years ago. Frank Dobson's special adviser retaliated when a female journalist threw a glass of wine over him by throwing her mobile phone across a crowded bar.

The late Tony Bevins, former political editor of The Independent, had a heated discussion with Bruce Anderson, the columnist, across the bar of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, in the 1980s while, in the background, Alastair Campbell played the bagpipes and Eve Pollard, the former Fleet Street editor, danced a jig with a playwright.

How do I avoid these disgraceful scenes?

Steer well clear of the Mirror party at Labour's conference: last year, had you stumbled in, you could have seen Dawn Primarolo, the paymaster-general, strutting her stuff in cowboy boots and a spangly red dress to Bjorn Again. The former editor Piers Morgan, fired over fake Iraq pictures, hosted parties with the Bootleg Beatles, the Counterfeit Stones and Boy George. His successor, Richard Wallis, is keeping up the tradition at the Labour conference with the soul band the Commitments on Wednesday night at the Grand.

At the Tory conferences, Jeffrey Archer used to host the "to die for" party, after 10pm in his suite with Krug and shepherd's pie. Lord Saatchi is keeping up the tradition - he had a champagne party as a warm-up at the Saatchi offices even before the conference season got under way.

The smart set get down to the disco at the Absolutely Equal gay Tory thrash with Alan Duncan and friends; it is now so mainstream that IDS and Michael Howard have been.

Invitation only at the Liberal Democrat late-night party hosted by Charles Kennedy at the Highcliff Hotel tomorrow night. Say Paddy sent you - Sláinge!

You can't be serious at the conference then?

Well, you can sit through the debates, if you must. And some of them can be pure theatre. In Bournemouth in 1985 Neil Kinnock denounced Derek Hatton, deputy leader of Liverpool City Council and supporter of the far-left Militant Tendency, for presiding over the "obscene spectacle" of a Labour council "scuttling round" handing out redundancy notices in taxis. The late, lamented Eric Heffer walked out. The next day a pocket cartoon appeared of a book called "Short walks by E Heffer". The cartoon was bought by Mr Heffer.

Tony Blair has never matched Kinnock's oratory, but his announcement to a stunned party that he was scrapping Clause 4 of the party constitution (Blackpool 1994) is in the top 10 of great moments at British political party conferences.

Margaret Thatcher's speech-writer Ronnie Millar was credited with her most-quoted soundbite in 1980: "You turn if you want to, the Lady's not for turning". Mrs Thatcher also delivered her memorable "back to business" rebuke to the IRA, who had tried to assassinate her hours before in a bomb attack on the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984. One of the survivors of the bombing, Norman Tebbit, went on to plunge the knife into John Major at the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth in 1992 and received a standing ovation from his supporters.

You have to be careful, though: Theresa May is famous for two things - leopardskin pointy shoes and telling the Conservatives at their 2002 conference that they were perceived as the "nasty party".

Do the parties indulge in dirty conference tricks?

Is the Pope a Catholic? New Labour have tried to abolish the conference as a place where the rank and file have any influence and replace it with a television guest show.

The most blatant bit of sabotage (blamed on Portillo supporters) was at the 2000 Tory party conference when seven of William Hague's shadow cabinet ministers let it be known (via Conservative Central Office) that they had tried cannabis, thus pulling the rug from under the right winger Ann Widdecombe, who - at the same conference - had called for £100 fines for cannabis possession in any quantity.

Will Blair and Brown be going head to head again?

For edge-of-the-seat risk-taking, last year's Labour conference in Bournemouth was one of the classics - Gordon Brown made a naked bid for the leadership; Mr Blair hit back the next day; and Mr Prescott piled in by knocking their heads together at the end of the week. It is shaping up for a rematch in Brighton between Brown and Blair, with Prescott again holding the coats. Mr Blair's decision to recall Alan Milburn from his family to take over the election strategy from Mr Brown is almost certain to set off another bout of the Tee-Bee-Gee-Bees. Tuesday is the leader's speech. It's Brighton - let's rumble!

Mr Prescott is due to wind up the Labour conference with his usual tub-thumper before the red flag. It will be on the same day as the Hartlepool by-election, which should give Prezza the chance for some gags about Peter Mandelson, whose departure as a Brussels commissioner has caused the vacancy. At the Tory conference, Michael Howard will break with tradition by making two speeches, at the start and end of the conference.

Will I meet celebs?

Only if you pay £500 a plate at a gala night. Celebs love power, and that means Labour. They still drool over Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey turning up at the Blackpool conference in 2002. They even went to McDonald's for a late-night burger together.

What is happening on the fringe?

Mark Oaten, Vince Cable, David Laws and the other authors of the Orange Book, seen as a modernisers' rallying call, are holding a fringe at the Liberal Democrat conference, which could cause waves. Mark Oaten is also on the panel for the Independent fringe at 6.15pm on Monday at the Wessex Hotel.

Labour's Tribune rally used to be the show not to miss when Michael Foot was leader: Margaret Beckett, in her lefty phase, attacked Neil Kinnock and the soft left at a Tribune rally in 1981 for failing to support Tony Benn against Denis Healey for the deputy leadership. The star turn at the Tribune rally this year will be Peter Hain.

The Independent is hosting the best fringe with Charles Clarke, Stephen Byers, Ed Balls and Robin Cook on 27 September at the Metropole on a radical third term. But check out the Campaign Group gig on Wednesday too with Tony Benn, the singer Billy Bragg and Kevin Curran of the GMB at the Ramada Jarvis Hotel on the seafront.

Europe still provides a fault-line for the Tories, and the Policy Exchange fringe at the Royal Bath Hotel on 4 October with Francis Maude and David Curry could cause a tremor. And The Independent is hosting a debate on how the Tories could win the election on the same day at 1pm at the Highcliff with Sir Malcolm Rifkind, John Redwood and David Cameron, the latter two having both been promoted to the Shadow Cabinet.

But it's all spin, isn't it?

The most disastrous photo-opportunity was Neil Kinnock's slip in the sea on the pebbly beach at Brighton in October 1983 that did for him politically. If you look closely at the footage used on the credits for Spitting Image you can see he was pulled over by Glenys, who had just bought a new pair of boots and did not want to get them wet.

The photographer Brian Harris once flummoxed a Liberal MP in Llandudno in 1981 by refusing to take a stunt photograph of him in a wheelchair until the MP wheeled himself around two blocks so he could genuinely share the pain of the disabled.

Mo Mowlam was fed up with a photographer hoping to snap her eating bangers and mash at the 2000 conference; she told him: "Could you please piss off." The most bizarre photo-stunt award should go to Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, who took a dip at Blackpool in October 2002 to illustrate cleaner seas . He was joined by two scantily clad models supplied by The Sun, and a latex shark.

Won't you be glad when it's all over?

Not as glad as Charles Kennedy, Tony Blair and Michael Howard.