Young and old not given quite enough rope

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The party with an average age of 62 (and that is just the Young Conservatives) decided yesterday morning to prove, despite all appearances to the contrary, that it had young blood coursing through its veins. It did this by inviting a 39-year-old retired athlete and a 34-year-old slaphead to launch its focus on youth. No wonder Seb Coe and William Hague looked embarrassed: just about to face up to mid-life crisis, here were the pair of them expected to act as MCs at the Tory rave.

Coe, the runner who defied Mrs Thatcher to gain his first gold medal at Moscow, said he was going to introduce us to some young Tories whose achievements, he claimed, in their own way were equal to his. Taking a microphone, he patrolled the conference hall picking out youngsters.

"And what do you do?" he asked them, like a royal on walkabout. "I'm training to be a solicitor," said one. "Well done," he replied. At the risk of sounding unduly cynical, I'm not sure if, as an achievement, going to law school to learn the intricacies of chargeable time opportunities quite matches breaking the world 800-metres record.

The conference clearly agreed. It wasn't youth that got it back on to full throaty, stamping adolescent form. It was the return of old times, old values, old Lady Thatcher. Her ladyship arrived on stage for the economics debate, her appearance provoking, in parts of the hall, an ovation which shot past the orgasmic. Other parts, however, mainly those housing Leon Brittan, could barely bring themselves to clap.

It was a shrewd move by Kenneth Clarke to invite Lady Thatcher to share his platform. Potentially the least popular speaker of the week, he basked in her reflected glory and shone. Mainly from the upper lip, as it happens; the lights unforgivingly catching the sweat building on his face. The portly Mr Clarke sweated because his deficit grows ever bigger, his stomach breaking the restraints of his double-breasted suit to rest, comfortably, on the lectern. "In the last year we have grown faster than any other country he Europe," he yelped in triumph at one point. And that was just around the chin.

More old friends appeared in the afternoon: law, order and Norman Tebbit.

The annual Home Affairs debate is the time that Tory mouths traditionally produce enough foam to keep one of Jack Straw's squeegee merchants' bucket full for a month. But this year, it seemed a more muted affair: it took 45 minutes before the first delegate demanded the return of capital punishment.

Michael Howard - the man who should long ago have been committed for crimes against the letter "L" - started slowly too. His first speech as Home Secretary had included 27 new proposals, but here, for the kind of red-toothed Tory who believes judges are dangerous liberals, there were worrying moments of spineless indecision: waffle about stopping racial attacks, fashionable nonsense about identifying children at risk and helping them. "I today announce," he finally said, to a hall-wide intake of breath, "the creation of the Crime Prevention Agency". There they were hoping for the rope, and got a quango.

Fortunately for the length of his ovation, Howard pulled it round at the end, pushing his glasses up on to the bridge of his nose to prove he was about to get tough. A return to honesty in sentencing, he promised: "Five years should mean five years." And "those convicted for the second time of violent crime will get life." Even this announcement was not enough for one delegate, an elderly, white-haired woman who bawled "No, no, string 'em up." Those boisterous young Tories: I blame the parents.