This Year’s Fringe
My god, but the Conservative conference fringe this year seemed a bleak place. Sitting with my conference companions in the ICC coffee shop, flicking through the guide, it seemed that the odd interesting topic or debate was surrounded by innumerable events which can only have been dreamed up by the lobbyists. I don’t know how interested the ordinary member of the grassroots is in Aviation Tax, for example, but I can only assume it is a passion well-known to the party given the numerous opportunities provided for discussing it.
Happily, there were enough entertaining options to keep a delegate moderately busy. Kenneth Clarke on the awfulness of Twitter was a particular highlight, as well as an interesting panel discussion on the future of urban conservatism. ConHome events were also good fun. Notably low-key this year was the Freedom Zone, much to the undoubted relief of the leadership.
A circuit of the commercial fringe – a sort of first-day ritual – served to do little but provide a couple of pleasant reminders of one’s party identity: the fur and private helicopter industries probably don’t take out stalls at every conference. The presence of a Conservative Future stand simply baffled. Is the aim to recruit the hordes of lobbyists?
As the editor of Open Unionism I was duty bound to cover union-related activities, and happily there were some good ones this year. Dr Liam Fox speaking at the Conservative Friends of the Union debate about the relationship between the independence debate and defence policy was particularly illuminating, as was Ruth Davidson’s speech about the future of the Scots Tories (“the time for sack-cloth and ashes is over”, apparently).
Frustratingly, for the fourth year running the Welsh fringe was scheduled to clash with the Scottish, and the Scottish reception to clash with the Northern Irish one. Given the relative dearth of party fringe events, quite why the few there are must be scheduled against one another is a mystery to me. Leaves more time for the lobbyists, I suppose.