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The Conservative Party in Blackpool: On the Front

'THIS is a good place to stay away from this year,' one Tory MP says, pondering the lack of Conservative backbenchers at the conference. And there are indeed very few people here from the parliamentary party other than those who have to be - ministers, whips and parliamentary private secretaries.

Backbenchers know that in store for them is grief from the representatives, tedium in the conference hall, a poor meal and a cold bed at the end of the day. Of course, complaining that Conservative conference debates are dull is like objecting to the backdrop blue.

However, it is good to hear the old stage managers complaining about too much stage management.

But even Lord Tebbit, who has silenced a few dissidents in his time, was calling for a bit of discussion yesterday. 'So you're here to sew yourself into the seamless sheet of party unity?' a reporter asked. 'Seamless shroud, more like,' Lord Tebbit replied.

Meanwhile, one right-wing MP is wondering when the party is going to turn its tanks on his Blackpool hotel.

'Democracy is dead,' Sir Teddy Taylor wailed, adding that, as far as stage-managed debate goes, the Conservative Party could have taught the old Soviet regime a thing or two.

Good stage management means nothing going wrong. And that's what allowed Gillian Shephard to call the agriculture debate 'excellent' and 'ably proposed' in a text of her speech released before the debate had taken place.

Perfectly normal practice, of course - and it only goes to show how perceptive, excellent and able a minister Mrs Shephard is.

BBC bashing - the normal recourse of a party on its uppers - is already a theme of the conference. Lord Tebbit, never the corporation's best friend, was not going to be left out: 'I'm all in favour of party unity,' he told his audience at a rain-sodden fringe meeting yesterday, 'so the first thing I want to do is make an attack on the BBC. I looked at the weather forecast on the way here and it said 'Showers dying out'. . .'

OF COURSE, a bit of flak never made one BBC staff member keep her head down. Which must explain the unabashed presence near the conference centre of a nippy white car with the number plate K8 ADY.

'PEOPLE like us' says the banner above the RSPCA's stand at the conference - what the society means is illustrated by photographs of party notables imposed on various animals. John Gummer gets, unaccountably, a swan; Nicholas Soames, more fittingly, a well-rounded sheep and John Major a glum-looking badger hastily digging itself into the ground.