The conference season is nearly over, and, by next week, emerging out of the morass of fringe meetings, champagne drunk in hotel bars, and leaflets handed out by pressure groups and charities will be a rough draft of the parties' manifestos for 2015. From the Liberal Democrats, populist measures on childcare and free school meals. From Labour, ambitious but risky plans to freeze energy prices for two years and seize land from developers who refuse to build homes. It goes without saying that George Osborne will have something tantalising from a rough draft of the Tory manifesto to offer voters when he takes to the stage in Manchester tomorrow.
The coalition parties want some of their plans introduced before the election, of course, which is presenting a huge headache for Whitehall departments. I am told that permanent secretaries are to use upcoming away days to work out how to implement what will be differing Lib Dem and Conservative policies in Government, and looking at manifesto pledges beyond, treading a careful line for fear of not giving one party more space than the other. This delicate situation has not happened for 60 years. Then, from next May – one year before polling day – top civil servants will open "handover talks" with Labour about the policies they want to introduce should they win the election.
You can tell we are getting close to an election (it's still a little over 19 months away but feels much nearer) because the parties are releasing the sort of paraphernalia normally found during campaigns: the Conservatives will launch a version of "Top Trumps" in Manchester this week based on union funding of the Labour Party. The more money an MP has received from unions, together with "evidence" that they are "Red" (OK, so this bit is not exactly scientific) the higher the "red rating". Ed Miliband comes top with a rating of 99. It is more than a coincidence, surely, that the shadow cabinet ministers who are rumoured to be for the chop in a forthcoming reshuffle (Blairites Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg) are the ones with the lowest red ratings.
The cards are a joke, obviously, but there is a serious point about the message that will be sent out if the Labour leader chooses to sack, or sideline, Blairites from his top team. There are even dark whisperings about Caroline Flint, one of the most experienced women on the frontbench, who is also a Blairite. This would be a mistake – she is one of the few leading Labour MPs who can elucidate a strategy for winning seats in the south.
One delegate in Brighton last week was heard to say that Blairites in the party had been "consigned to the rubbish bin of history". Yet a senior Labour figure spoke to me in very grave terms about the dangers of the party under Miliband "renouncing" Tony Blair – who won three elections, after all. The people who represent most closely his reforms should remain in the shadow cabinet, or those handover talks next May will be a mere academic exercise.
Running the demon drink out of town
Early last Monday, when 95 per cent of Labour conference delegates were nursing hangovers, I ran along Brighton's seafront with comedian Eddie Izzard, former spin doctor Alastair Campbell and shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham to raise awareness for the charity Alcohol Concern.
There were some ironic glances at our running vests that read the name of the charity when, a few hundred yards away, some Labour activists were only just getting to bed. Considering I'm attempting a half marathon in a week's time, it was a relatively brisk 5k run (a nasty bout of dysentery meant Campbell could only do the final few hundred metres), but I was glad when it was over. That is the first, and last, time I get out of bed early for Alastair Campbell.
In a week when we are reminded that Labour's spinning past could merit an entire pack of Top Trumps of its own, Campbell, a former alcoholic, tried to rise above it all and launched a crusade on minimum unit pricing. I would agree with him that the drinks industry has an unhealthy grip on our society, and indeed on our politicians. And visit any A&E ward in any hospital across the country at any time of day, and someone will be ill with alcohol.
Campbell's own government let the door open to round-the-clock drinking, now efforts should be made to help him close it.
Damian the anti-dick
I wrote about Damian McBride last week, so I hesitate to invoke his name again. But his memoir, Power Trip, is such compelling reading he is worth another mention. We have heard enough, probably, of the leaks, smears and blackening of names, so putting all that aside, there are some surprising tips for life in there, just as you might find strands of saffron in a vat of pig slurry.
One in particular I am going to apply to my daily life. To quote the Dark Master on how to succeed in the Civil Service: "Be the anti-dick. There's always one dick and, once they identify themselves, you just need to say and do the exact opposite of everything the dick says and does. He says, 'I'm not sure that idea really works, Caroline,'; you say, 'Actually, I really wanted to hear more about it, Caroline.'" Brilliant.
I think Cameron should introduce this method at EU summits and G8 meetings. Just think of how Britain's standing in the world would be improved if our PM was the anti-dick. "Sure, Vladimir, you might say that about Barack but I think he has some valid points." This is, of course, a variation on the old adage that, if you can't identify the one everyone hates seated around a table, it's you. A feeling that must have dawned on Damian McBride quite a lot.
You can take the woman out of Liverpool...
I was amused to read the account of Liverpool-born model Hollie-May Saker after she was mobbed by members of Femen, the Ukrainian women's protest group, while on the Paris catwalk. Claiming she punched one of the feminist protestors (although the footage does not seem to bear this out), Saker said "My Scouseness came out a bit."
I can testify, being from Liverpool myself, that you can live in London for more than a decade, but your Scouseness never leaves you. Not punching people in the face, obviously, but a general over-excitedness, if I can put it that way. Perhaps next time I lose my temper, or over-react to something, I can hold up my hands and declare "My Scouseness came out a bit."