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Bluster, Bombast and Bunfights on the Beach: Top 10 Conference Moments

26 August 2016

1. Boris gets Terminated, Conservative Conference 2007

British political events rarely carry the glamour of their American counterparts, so American-born Boris Johnson may well have experienced a moment of excitement at the prospect of a guest appearance via video link by then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Unfortunately, as many politicians have learnt during events out and about, technical issues can produce some revealing unintentional transmissions. In this instance, a speech by the Tory MP was interrupted by the sound of the bodybuilder-turned-politician declaring to his staffers that “this guy is fumbling all over the place”.

The following year, the newly-elected Mayor returned the insult by declaring the Governor a “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg”. It has yet to be revealed whether, in his subsequent capacity as Foreign Secretary, the two mononymous leaders will convene on friendlier terms to discuss the potential trade opportunities of Brexit.

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2. Iain Dale’s scrappy seafront encounter, Labour Conference 2013

Labour watchers received an early preview of the disorder engendered by internal party splits after former Gordon Brown staffer Damian McBride chose the party’s 2013 conference as the perfect time to release a tell-all memoir of his stint as a Special Adviser.

But amid the revelations of internecine skulduggery from Mr McBride’s bestselling book, attention was grabbed by an even more embarrassing incident. During a press appearance designed to publicise the book, publisher Iain Dale got into a physical altercation with a protester on the Brighton promenade.

To the astonishment of TV crews, Mr Dale grappled with anti-nuclear campaigner Stuart Holmes, as Mr Holmes’ banner-festooned dog took the opportunity to join in the fray. He later issued a public apology for his behaviour and subsequent defiant posture, but the encounter will stick in the minds of many as a bizarre example of conference media opportunity gone wrong.

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3. Peter Lilley’s Mikado moment, Conservative Conference 1992

One of the more surreal moments to grace the conference stage took place during a 1992 keynote speech by then-Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley, who elected to offer his Conservative compatriots a musical tribute to cutting benefits.

Declaring his intention to “close down the something for nothing society”, Mr Lilley embarked on a lyrical enumeration of the various enemies of the public purse whose funding he intended to terminate, including child support evaders and “sponging socialists”.

The unorthodox musical tribute appeared to go down well. “In a conference where they laugh at Jeffrey Archer's jokes, this was almost Dorothy Parker”, observed the Independent. Indeed, while some were highly critical of this apparent glee at the prospect of pruning back the welfare state, Mr Lilley’s approach was popular enough to guarantee him another four and a half years in office.

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4. Tony Blair’s farewell speech, Labour Conference 2006

A valedictory address by Prime Minister Tony Blair took centre stage at the 2006 Labour Conference, giving the beleaguered leader the chance to set forth his ensuring message and instruct the faithful: “You’re the future now”.

“This was a country aching for change”, the veteran Prime Minister declared, invoking for one last time the elation that had greeted his landslide 1997 victory.

In a display of the oratorical powers that had taken him to Number 10 embodying the hopes of a generation, Mr Blair reeled off a lengthy list of the policy achievements of New Labour, declaring: “Take a step back and be proud: this is a changed country”.

In typical style, the speech was implicitly a defence of the New Labour project. “We abandoned the ridiculous, self-imposed dilemma between principle and power”, Mr Blair declared, defining in a single phrase his own preferred vision for the left’s end of history. Ten years on, however, the resolution of this central political challenge appeared less certain.

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5. Lib Dem Glee Club sings The 12 Days of Coalition, Liberal Democrat Conference 2013

One of the most distinctive aspects of Liberal Democrat Conference is the annual “Glee club” singalong. Each year, party delegates gather in the evening for a rousing performance of songs on favourite political themes, with lyrics bellowed joyfully by a crowd armed with copies of the special Liberator Song Book.

Typically formulated to savage opponents and lampoon one’s own leaders, the liberal songs meld the musical mould of Flanders and Swann and the satirical salvos of Private Eye.

However, during the Coalition years, the evening of song appeared to take on a more therapeutic dimension as the party convened to examine the damage done by governing alongside the Conservatives.

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6. The Enemy Within: The keynote speech that never happened, Conservative Conference 1984

The 1984 Conservative Party Conference will be known in history as a chilling near-miss for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who lost an MP and almost lost her life in the explosion of an IRA bomb at Brighton’s Grand Hotel.

The incident would become iconic in the story of the “Iron lady” who defiantly insisted her Government would not be cowed. But interestingly, more recent media accounts have revealed a rhetorical casualty of the deadly attack: the keynote conference speech Baroness Thatcher had planned but never got to make.

Dubbed “the most divisive speech of her premiership” by the Guardian, the would-be broadside included accusations that then-Labour Leader Neil Kinnock was a “puppet” whose party had been “hijacked” by “the enemies of democracy”, and offered the defiant warning: “Our country is not to be torn apart by an extension of the calculated chaos planned for the mining industry by a handful of trained Marxists and their fellow travellers”.

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7. Neil Kinnock attacks Militant Tendency, Labour Conference 1985

Even if Baroness Thatcher never went public with her accusations of Opposition softness in the face of militancy, it was clearly a theme of such resonance that by the following year, Neil Kinnock saw it as his duty to go on the offensive.

His keynote conference speech was seen by many in the press as a symbolic moment that would lay the ground for Labour’s journey back to power, as he used uncompromising language to attack the machinations of Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist faction dominant in Labour-run Liverpool Council at the time.

“I am telling you, no matter how entertaining, how fulfilling to short-term egos, you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes”, he declared, laying down a stark message of electoral urgency and a plea for pragmatism. “Understand that, please, comrades. In your socialism, in your commitment to those people, understand it”.

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8. William Hague’s first political speech, Conservative Conference 1977

Few politicians can claim to have been in the public eye as long as William Hague, now Lord Hague of Richmond. The senior Conservative politician made waves at the tender age of 16 when he appeared during the 1977 Conservative Party Conference, spawning that popular embodiment of political precocity, the figure of the “Tory Boy”.

The speech Mr Hague delivered set him up as a recognisable face, and ultimately produced a long and fruitful Commons career. But, one would like to imagine, the intervening years produced a Foreign Secretary who knew a little more about how to be diplomatic.

With little time for the social niceties of imagined immortality, the young ideologue bluntly remarked: “Half of you may not be here in 30 or 40 years' time but I will be and I want to be free”.

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9. Corbyn vs the Autocue, Labour Conference 2015

You could cut the tension with a knife along the Brighton seafront last year after Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding Labour leadership victory. A PLP in shock decided to grin and bear it, while journalists were gleefully waiting with bated breath for the first sniff of a split.

While lovers of chaos would be disappointed as the party resolutely averted an all-out fight, critics who believed Mr Corbyn’s leadership would prove an instant shambles seized upon an unfortunate rhetorical moment during the new leader’s keynote address, when the Islington MP appeared to accidentally read aloud a direction from the Autocue.

“Strong message here”, he intoned, to immediate confusion and dissection via the medium of Twitter. While the incident was not enough to secure round condemnation and ridicule, it was a sign of things to come. Mr Corbyn’s supporters have since become more ambitious, pitching his awkwardness as a sign of virtue to be contrasted with a slick and inadequate professional political class.

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10. “The Nasty Party”, Conservative Conference 2002

It would become the defining message of a generation for the Conservative Party, sparking a long journey back to power via the husky-hugging centrist credentials of David Cameron, but back in 2002, there was a degree of consternation when a relatively obscure Tory politician informed her colleagues they had an image problem.

“There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us - the nasty party”, party Chair Theresa May exclaimed.

While it would take a few years for the message to be heeded amidst the electoral wilderness of the “quiet man” years, the speech represented a breakthrough moment for Ms May, who demanded diversity in candidate selections, instructing local Associations to look beyond their typical milieu: “Don't ask yourself whether you would be happy to have a drink with this person on a Sunday morning, ask instead what this person says about us”.

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DeHavilland will be providing extensive coverage at the 2016 Labour, Conservative and SNP Conferences, including headline speeches and announcements, and original reports on a wide selection of fringe events. Contact your Monitoring Consultant today to find out more.

Anna Haswell, Senior Political Analyst and Content Marketer
Anna Haswell
Senior Political Analyst and Content Marketer

As Senior Political Analyst at DeHavilland, Anna Haswell leads on financial services policy, as well as covering media issues. In her capacity as Content Marketer, she is also responsible for DeHavilland's briefings and analysis output, working across teams to ensure relevant messages reach current and prospective clients alike. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and Goldsmiths, University of London.