Blackpool has seen better times; as I got off the train at Blackpool North and made my way to a small hotel one mile away, the confident and busy town that I first visited over 30 years ago as a young delegate in the time of Ted Heath looked demoralised and empty. There were fewer people about and so the town was short of the necessary support to sustain it in its traditional style. The needs, tastes and expectations of people had changed and Blackpool had not responded. The competition had made deep inroads into the market and Blackpool had not responded. The town appealed mainly to the elderly who had maintained their loyalty as the years rolled by, but it had failed to attract the young. It needed to reposition itself in the market place if it was to survive.
So it was perhaps appropriate that the Conservative Party, in a similar condition, should hold its 2001 Party Conference there. Since the last conference in Bournemouth, we had lost a General Election and changed our Leader. And the country was now at war with terrorism. All three factors influenced the mood of the conference; sadness at the scale of our recent defeat; hope for the future with a new team; and prayers for the people killed by terrorists and for the forces in the front line in the Middle East.
The highlight of the conference for many delegates was the unexpected appearance of William Hague on the Tuesday. Many delegates were touched and some wept. He said he was sorry about the election; and the Party forgave him. One of the outstanding Parliamentarians of his generation had crossed the political stage without realising his potential. As he stood next to Iain Duncan Smith, I heard one delegate remark how similar they were. But they are not; in temperament, outlook and backgrounds they are quite different; Iain will give a different style of Leadership, will manage the Party in a different way and will have learned the lessons of the past four years.
Those who had predicted that the Party would lurch to the right under the new Leader were proved wrong. Alan Duncan’s speech set out a bold commitment to tackle third world poverty; Michael Howard spoke of improvements to public services, not of tax cuts; Damien Green emphasised the need to support not criticise our teachers; the Leader spoke of his intolerance of intolerance. The Euro and asylum seekers – some of themes of the recent General Election - were played down. For those who had voted for Kenneth Clarke in the recent contest, this was a conference they could feel at home at.
One noticed the absence of journalists; of standing ovations for all but the few; the reluctance to indulge in political invective; – and, sadly but understandably, the absence of jokes. All of this is unlikely to recur, making it a wholly unusual two days.
But the mood of delegates was on the whole positive. There was an appetite to see and get to know the new front bench; to influence the direction of the party's policies by attending fringe meetings; and to support the Leader on Wednesday. The best part of his speech was the section at the end - when he told us what he believed in and what he wanted to do.
There was a strong delegation in Blackpool from North West Hampshire, who dined out together at Mammas. One – David Drew – spoke at the conference about the key role of the BBC World service during the current crisis in supplying truth to the Middle East.
At the end of the conference, I could detect a future for the Conservative Party. But I remain very concerned about Blackpool.