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Donald Macintyre

Sketch: Shapp's truth about the Conservative troops

As Freudian slips go, Shapps’ reference to the truth was intriguing. Was it a subliminal promise never to use an alias again?

There was a surprising moment yesterday when the Conservative chairman Grant Shapps (aka Michael Green, Sebastian Fox, the £24m man etc) identified the third heading in his dynamic four-point recipe for winning the next election: "mobilising the truth".

This is such a revolutionary concept in modern political campaigning that the audience was momentarily baffled. But fortunately it was just a slip of the tongue. Swiftly correcting himself, he made clear that what he had meant to say was "mobilising the [Tory] troops". The audience smiled in collective relief.

That said, as Freudian slips go, it was intriguing. Was it a subliminal promise never to use an alias again? Or never to allow copy on the websites run by companies associated with him or his family to expose them to the kind of investigation the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is currently carrying out into one of them?

Certainly Shapps did seem curiously reluctant to over-hype the party's achievements yesterday, perhaps fearing the further attentions of the ASA. The first of these he cited was the return of 148 new Tory MPs in the 2010 election. Fair enough. But the second, he told the activists, was that, "You've defeated that dreadful Alternative Vote".

Could he be serious? Victory in a referendum in which the Labour Party was divided down the middle, apathy stalked the land, and the campaign for a new voting system was one of the worst in history? Does anybody normal even remember it?

The third (of three) items in his list, moreover, was distinctly double edged – namely the two successive elections as London mayor of the man whose arrival in Birmingham today is awaited with such rapidly rising excitement.

And here, Shapps's joke, if that's what it was, was enigmatic, to say the least. In a reference to the mayor's famous mid-air suspension during the Olympics, he added: "As Boris says himself, 'There are no disasters, only opportunities, and indeed opportunities for fresh disasters.' So Boris, I've arranged for a zip wire for your arrival on stage come Tuesday."

Coming from a man who said again how proud he was to have seconded David Cameron for the Tory leadership, it sounded almost menacing.

Because Shapps stepped out in front of the lectern to make his speech, it looked for a moment as if he was going to speak, Miliband-style, without notes. But no, there at the back of the hall was the big teleprompter screen with not only the text but even the odd stage direction, like "LONG PAUSE". And while it may be the layout of the Symphony Hall, with its tiered auditorium, as well as his distinctly hammy delivery, you kept feeling this was an actor – Colin Firth, say? – rehearsing a National Theatre play about a Tory conference. And that Firth would have made a much better job of it by First Night.