The Conservatives in Brighton / On the front: The dull rumble of fallingc jaws

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IT IS a place of strange wonders. Wherever you look, jaws are in a permanent state of drop. 'Would you believe. . .?' people ask - 'Would you believe Norman Tebbit?' 'Would you believe Ken Baker?' 'Would you believe they hissed the words 'Michael Heseltine'?' 'Would you believe they've hung the Union Jack back-to-front?'

Have they? A debate with Russ Pipe, head of conference presentation, on the matter of the flag that adorns the conference logo concludes like this: 'In a sense you're right. It is back-to-front (because it's flying from a pole on the right). But it's not the Union Jack, only a bit of the Union Jack, part of a larger banner. So it is, umm, poetic licence.' An upside down Union Jack is of course a signal of distress. A back-to-front one means - what? Not, 'Taking Britain Forward', but Dragging her back again?

WOULD you believe Kenneth Baker the rebel? Especially his insouciant account of his long opposition, in Cabinet and out, to the ERM and Maastricht. 'But this,' a bitter voice hisses, 'this is the man who proposed the vote of thanks in Cabinet to John Major when he returned from Maastricht]'

BAKER concluded with the earnest wish that the debate on Maastricht be carried on with the Conservatives' usual 'friendship and amity'. These qualities were widely on display yesterday. A badge reading 'Europe - Major's Way' seemed to inspire particular friendliness, with one delegate at lunchtime fringe meeting on Europe being spotted wrenching the badge from another's lapel with the words: 'Shut your mouth or I'll shut it for you]'

Earlier, the suppliers of the badge, the Conservatives in the European Parliament, were surprised to find the Europhobe MP Bill Cash in front of their stand in the conference centre, loudly denouncing them and their works for the benefit of a Central TV camera. So the good CEP ladies behind the stand grabbed their 'Europe - Major's Way' banner and danced behind Cash's head with it until Central TV gave up and went away.

WE HAVE revived the Independent's conference noise-meter - the only sure way of telling just how lovely a speaker is. And thank you, Brighton council's environmental health department, for the loan of a Cel-175 Precision Integrating Sound Level Meter. Aware, doubtless, of our attentions Douglas Hurd opened his speech with a promise not to 'oil my way to some sort of ovation'. Nevertheless he scored a creditable peak of 96 decibels in the 60- second ovation after his painstaking speech. Tebbit beat him, though, with 98 decibels and a 70-second ovation - no more decibels than the party chairman, Norman Fowler, scored after asking the Tories to applaud a fourth general election victory. And isn't that a strange and wondrous thing?

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