The beginning was inauspicious. As the Tories assembled for the opening session of their Blackpool Conference, the sound system was playing up. The first speaker was the conference chairman, a man called Mort, as in dead. Mr Mort was better than a British Rail catering announcement. Indeed, he was less soporific than Gordon Brown last week.
But his enthusiasm for the sound of his own voice was not widely shared. So for 20 minutes, we were subjected to cheery banalities, which would be interrupted by the loudspeaker's grumblings and gremlinings, followed in turn by "Testing: one, two, three, four..." from the sound engineers. Then Chairman Mort would start again. That none of this provoked mutiny testifies to the basic loyalty of the average Tory in the hall.
At last, normal service is renewed, with more evidence of loyalty. William Hague received an unusual tribute; a standing ovation before he had started speaking. He had no difficulty in justifying the ovation. Mr Hague is now the finest speaker in British politics. Tony Blair was his only rival; David Cameron takes second place (George Galloway used to be a contender, but not since he dressed up as a pussycat).
The audience wanted to have its spirits lifted. It wanted someone to pour scorn on Gordon Brown and his accolytes. It wanted knockabout. Mr Hague delivered. Now that he has grown into his haircut, he is an object of universal affection. The poor fellow may not yet realise it, but he will be expected to give the same performance every year at every Tory conference for as long as he is on the Front Bench. It is the role which Michael Heseltine used to play.
Twenty years ago, there was a boulevardier called Noel Picarda, alas now dead, who used to perform a cabaret late in the conference night. One of his party pieces was a dialogue between two old Tory peers, leaving the rostrum after one of Hezza's Nuremberg orations. "You can say what you like about that fella Heseltine, or brilliantine, or whatever you call him. Can't half find the party's clitoris."
In taking over from Tarzan, Mr Hague had one advantage. Although Blackpool may be the most old-fashioned conference hall, it is also the one best designed for oratory. In contrast, Bournemouth is stiflingly anti-septic, ideally suited for Gordon Mogadon. If he had been obliged to start off in Bournemouth, Hitler would have had difficulty in launching his career. But the platform of the Winter Gardens was designed for gospel and high excitement.
Mr Hague had a further asset. Blackpool also attracts the most new-fangled Tory audience. There was a time when the average Tory representative exuded pin-striped tailoring and odour cologne, while the ladies made serious efforts to dress up. This is no longer true. That is partly due to the effect of Blackpool and the treck to get there, plus the near-impossibility of finding somewhere decent to eat.
So as the years passed, the affluent southern seats sent fewer participants, and those who did attend were often youngsters, happy to put up with B&Bs washed down with fish and chips. At Blackpool this year, suits and ties are in the minority. At midnight on Saturday, in the bar of the Imperial Hotel, a younger friend said to me: "You and I are the oldest people in sight." A horrible thought, which makes one glad that the Tories are about to abandon Blackpool for Manchester.
The youngsters are street-fighting Tories. Usually state school educated, rarely from Oxbridge, only a few of them working in the City, they have come to politics from the tough route of arguments in provincial student unions where the lefties still regard Tories as lower than vermin. Later on, there would be local government elections and battles in hopeless wards, some of which they won, while also pursuing coal-face careers. Margaret Thatcher was the first Tory to use the phrase "classless society". That is still a long way off, but here in Blackpool, a classless Tory party is on display. David Cameron might be the first Old Etonian to lead the Tories since Lord Home, but he is presiding over a party which Alec Home would not have recognised (though it might have earned his wry approval).
While it would be absurd to claim that these Tory youngsters have no political anxieties, their morale is far higher than the opinion polls might appear to justify. They are all eager to talk about the parish council by-election won with a 35 per cent swing, or the offers of support from people who would never previously have contemplated voting Tory. One of them made a shrewd point: "Tell me; have you ever met anyone who likes Gordon Brown?". If the Tory party is about to march off to war, it will do so in surprisingly good heart – and this is only Sunday.
In stark and deliberate contrast to Bournemouth, a banquet of speech-making is on offer. Gordon's Mara-bore was followed by a succession of mindless performances. In that company, Mr Mort would have shone, certainly in comparison to David Miliband. Mr Miliband is a young Foreign Secretary with a good brain. There was a lot of interest in what he would say. He said nothing. "Young" was the only part of the description that he justified. He sounded like an eager, not too-bright, in fact slightly tiresome, youngster doing work experience at the Foreign Office.
There will be no such millipedery in Blackpool. William Hague was followed by Michael Heseltine, who was as good as ever. A few minutes later, while waiting to bound on to the platform, Boris Johnson was running his fingers through his blond locks, to ensure that, as always, his hair would look as if it had never known a comb. Mr Johnson also began to a standing ovation. It was less clear that he justified it. He ended with another ovation, but this audience would have leapt to its feet if he had simply read extracts from the bendy bus timetable.
Mr Johnson is not yet a serious speaker. President of the Union at Oxford, he still sounds like an undergraduate debater. He could do a lot better, but for that to happen, something will have to change. Mr Johnson will have to learn to take himself seriously. Otherwise, he will be in danger of sounding like a few golden hairs extracted from Michael Heseltine's comb.
Over the next few days, there will be a succession of speakers who have no difficulty in being serious. Last year, George Osborne made the best speech he has so far delivered. This year, the party expects him to do better still. Michael Gove will also remind everyone that he is becoming a formidable performer, while David Davis will give a much better speech than he managed in Blackpool in 2005.
That will be all very well, as long as two things happen. First, that these are more than isolated performances and that as the days unfold, so does an agenda for Government. Second, that on Wednesday, David Cameron surpasses everyone. If all that does happen, and Gordon Brown should call an election, he may yet regret doing so.Reuse content