We don't want to be by seaside - end of the political pier show

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The Tories have signalled they are ready to roll down the curtain on one of the longest surviving political traditions: the week-long conference by the seaside.

The Conservative Party chairman, Francis Maude, said he wanted to make it easier for young working people to attend by holding it possibly over a weekend.

Mr Maude said the mini-break conference would almost certainly take place in cities such as Bath or Newcastle. Labour is also planning to desert the seaside next year, having opted for Manchester for the main autumn conference.

"Having a party conference that only takes place on weekdays means that the only people who can come are the people who are paid to or are retired, or are independently rich - or are fanatics. Party conferences should be much more accessible for young working people," said Mr Maude.

The decision to desert the normal conference venues of Blackpool or Brighton may be welcomed by the Notting Hill set around the new Conservative leader, but it is dismaying some of the Tory old guard.

Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman, who was injured with his wife, Margaret, when a Brighton conference hotel was bombed in 1984, said he would be saddened by the move.

"I am sad about it because it does seem to me an attempt by the leadership to put distance between itself and the party membership. I think it is another part of the centralising approach to minimise the contact with the grassroots, who tend to be old, which is a sin, and tend to be right-wing, which is also a sin."

Lord Tebbit said the week-long conference was a great social event for the ordinary members to rub shoulders with cabinet ministers in the fuggy atmosphere of the conference hotel bars, or the banquets and dinner-dances organised by the seaside.

Some former Tory cabinet ministers may prefer to forget their appearances at the conference by the seaside. William Hague, newly brought back to the front bench as shadow Foreign Secretary, admits to being tired of seeing himself making his debut as a gauche 16-year-old, telling Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet to prepare to move over for the new generation.

Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo made toe-curlingly embarrassing speeches at the seaside, which may make them glad to see the back of the conference season. Mr Lilley scored a new low in the political charts with a song about "a little list", while Mr Portillo, as Defence Secretary, bombed with a speech that aped the SAS, saying: "We dare - we will win."

Jean Searle, a former president of the Conservative National Convention who organised the 2001 conference in Blackpool, said it was time to change.

"The party has to move forward, we have got to change," she told BBC News. "I would be disappointed to see the end of party conferences as they were at the seaside, but we have got to modernise. We no longer feel that Blackpool is the right place for a modern party."

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