One of the BBC Reporters I was speaking to during the conference made the observation that everybody ought to go to at least 1 party conference at least once, just to experience it. He's absolutely right; it is an experience like no other and I would urge people, especially those who are not political to give it a go. This was my first conference in ten years; the last time I went we were in the doldrums of opposition and with things unlikely to get any better. Here are my thoughts on what has changed, got better or worse and stayed the same in the 10 years I was missing from conference.
The Conference Facilities: I have to say I was very impressed with Birmingham; an easy drive from Norwich and the ICC/Hyatt were simple to find and get to. The only problem we had was finding our way to the hotel after the police cut off most of the major roads! The ICC itself was an excellent facility and the staff were very friendly and helpful. My one big criticism in the main hall itself; it was very small and meant that we were unable to get into some of the major speeches including George Osborne's. However, if I were a cynic (heaven forbid) I would say that the excellent facilities have therefore diminished the role of the conference hall itself - there is so much else to see and do that the speeches almost got in the way!
The Platform Speeches: I have watched a few back on iplayer and BBC Parliament and you get a very different sense of a speech in the hall itself. I didn't think, for example, Eric Pickles came across half as well on TV as he did in the hall. Michael Gove was, for me, the darling of the conference and the whole session on public services was very well put together. We have a lot of excellent speakers in the cabinet and government. My one problem, though, was the stage managed element of this. We were asked to put forward questions and make submissions but the number of opportunities was very limited and even when I went to do this well in advance, all the slots had been taken. Such a shame that wasn't more an opportunity for the membership to "own" the conference hall itself.
The Fringe: And so that led to the best bit of the conference, the amazing fringe meetings. There were hundreds to choose from, very diverse topics and well put on. I did a full day, every day - from breakfast meetings to lunch time, early evening and then night time fringes. The debate was free-flowing and, actually, very respectful of people's opinions. At one fringe, I spoke to defend the principle of mixed ability teaching after a half dozen others spoke up for setting and streaming in schools. I expected to be savaged, but not.
The Lobbyists / Media: One thing which has changed massively is the number of lobbyists and media present now we are in government. Many of them dominated fringe meetings to spread their cause or deliver a message. I'm OK with this, but not if it drowns out the members having their say. One fringe I went to had lobbyist, after lobbyist, after lobbyist, speaking. A massive industry has been sparked in the last 10 years. One estimate I received is that only a third of people there were actually Tory members / delegates.
The Minister's Mind: One thing I had forgotten is what amazing access you get to Ministers, MPs and even the media themselves. I bumped into most of the senior BBC staff and spoke to them and probably half of the cabinet. You forget how human some of these people are - I ran into Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, Leader of the House Sir George Young, Education Secretary Michael Gove amongst others ... all just looking around the conference or having a drink at the bar. No wonder this kind of event attracts lobbyists!
The Exhibition: Now wasn't that good! The conference exhibition was massive - much bigger than 10 years ago, with various groups having stands and trying to engage the delegates and each other. CCHQ put on a good range of training, I enjoyed Red Ed's Beer & Sandwiches, stands with the latest in technology, Conservative friend groups, printers, shops (ASDA and M&S were there), unions & public sector groups. It was vibrant, noisy, engaging and never dull. When I had a spare half hour, a wander around the exhibition was a great way of bumping into people.
The Parties: Something which hasn't changed is the Tory capacity to drink and eat!! The food was good but got very samey towards the end as most parties / fringe meetings had the same caterers! Best booze award goes to the teaching unions for their wine stocks and to the Conservative Friends of Cyprus for having decent beer! Best food award goes to Barnardos for their Fish 'n' Chip supper! The National Autistic Society had a cocktails party too! The Eastern Region Reception was very well attended and great fun and the Norfolk Tories tried, and failed, to eat the hottest curry known to man.
The Security: 10 years ago you pretty much were able to stroll into conference with a swipe of your library card. Now we've in government the security was amazing; it sometimes took a good 20-30 minutes just to get into the ICC; which as you have the PM and cabinet around must be a good thing! The security staff were all very good natured and even the policemen with guns cracked a smile!
The Splits: In short, I didn't spot any. The Freedom Zone, outside of the conference center, ran a number of very good events where the more radical elements of Tory thinking were explored. Quite right too - good on them. Debate is important, especially as we weren't allowed any in the main conference hall.
The Stamina: I had forgotten that Conference is a stamina event; either that or I could manage it 10 years ago and can't now! Getting up for an 8am fringe, going to bed at 3am and drinking for 15 hours straight can make things difficult (at my age). But it was so good natured and happy. There was, above all, a real sense of enjoyment about the conference.
The Conservative Party seemed more professional and much more organized than I ever remembered. It was a really good event and hopefully I may be able to do it again, maybe within the next 10 years.
I'll finished with another word from a BBC reporter; they do 3 weeks of this, on the road, from the LibDems to Labour to the Tories. The LibDem event was muted, the Labour get-together was stunned and the Conservative conference was just more fun.