I suppose, like many who take a passing interest in politics, that I have watched a fair few party political conferences, but what we see on television is only part of it.
“It’s a very different story at an Adam Smith Institute fringe meeting on economic growth later that afternoon. It’s not just standing room only – people can’t even squeeze into the room – but still they hover at the door, hungry for the narcotic blast of high-grade, free-market rhetorical cocaine. “Remember: low taxes and low spending. If you just remember that,” urges a speaker, “a lot of our difficulties will be removed.” The chair despairs of Osborne’s warning that morning to people who don’t pay their taxes (“Why is tax avoidance a priority?”). The mantra is relentless: cut taxes, cut spending, roll back the state.
Only a few years ago this sort of session had been exiled to the fringes of the fringe, confined to diehard followers of John Redwood, but now meetings such as this dominate the week, like a runaway Thatcherite express train hurtling back to the 80s.
Every party conference can become a bit of a parallel universe, safe behind its G4S security cordon, but this takes the bubble mentality to a whole new level. In the real world outside, austerity is hurting and voters are complaining about cuts, but here inside most people put the government’s problems down to being too wet and leftwing. A Populus fringe meeting delivers an avalanche of bad news about the party’s poll ratings, but to a half-empty room; in previous years, when the polling news was good, the Populus meeting was always well attended. Now the party doesn’t seem keen to hear what voters think of them.
Ann Widdecombe’s anti-gay marriage rally, on the other hand, is packed and excitable to the point of pantomime, with Widdecombe on her feet conducting the audience from the stage. “Is that how we want our country to look?” she trills. “No!” everyone roars. “This is not an anti-gay rally, it is defining marriage full stop!” she shrieks. “Yes!” everyone cheers. “