The last conference before the defeat of 1997 was memorable for all the wrong reasons. We knew we were going down; but, as in 1992, we hoped that when it came to polling day, stubby pencils would hover over the box next to the Labour candidate on the ballot paper, and people would decide to ‘play safe’ and vote Conservative. They didn’t. So in 1997, having lost my previous job (as the MP I worked for lost his), I went up to Conference working for a different MP – William Hague, by now the Leader of the Opposition.
Many people were still in shock and couldn’t quite get used to the idea that we were out of office. Blair had already shown his style of government would be more like a personality cult than anything we had previously seen – and many representatives assumed the pendulum would swing back our way in four years’ time.
William had promised A Fresh Start and much of what he said seemed to resonate with the activists. But sadly, the media seemed more interested in the cut of Ffion’s dress than his plans for cutting the welfare state. As hard as William tried to enthuse the country – and the conference – with his Listening to Britain initiative, it seemed the media were determined to punish us some more.
The conferences in those early years of Opposition didn’t get any better. Though some lobbyists and businesses remained loyal and kept providing the wine and canapés, it seemed more in sympathy than a certain belief that we were going to be back in government any time soon. Soon we noticed fewer friends making the pilgrimage to the seaside, and those who did often left early.
The dead parrot headline of The Sun drove a stake through the heart of the Hague leadership. As hard as everyone tried, we knew that this was going to be a long haul – and the gods of Fleet Street were simply not going to help us. The mood of the conferences was depressing, it seemed that Blair walked on water and, despite his relative youth, William was portrayed as being out of touch with Cool Britannia. Attempts to prove otherwise all too often ended in even worse headlines.
The conferences became internal debating societies where it seemed we were entirely focused on talking to one another, rather than trying to reach out to those who already regretted lending their support to Blair. We could barely excite ourselves, let alone those watching on their television sets. Only the ‘surprise’ appearances of Baroness Thatcher seemed to create genuine enthusiasm, though probably as much because it reminded everyone of what our party used to stand for. Though the stage sets became more slick and the videos played before set-piece speeches became more polished, by the time we had returned to our constituencies and offices, any feeling of optimism had worn off.
By the conference of 2000, I had been selected to fight the parliamentary constituency of Brighton Pavilion. I was no longer working for William, but he had shifted gears and was campaigning energetically to alert people to the potential damage of a second Labour term. But the mood was still deep-rooted dismay and despair in the conference bars and on the fringe.
Despite the launch of Conservative Future and Conservative Network, there were too few younger people attending and not enough fresh blood to inject vigour into the proceedings. Everyone tried hard to look cheerful and hopeful, but our hearts were not in it. Many still believed that it was all a bad dream and soon we’d wake up. We went on to win just one more seat than the previous election. The nightmare still had a while to run.