I decided not to write a day-by-day account this year, not least because I'm in college for most of it. Instead, I thought I'd report back on the significant moments of my wanderings through the two days of Conference in one post. I've promised a more complete 'Conservative Conference from a Unionist Perspective' to The Commentator too.
1) The 'A United Kingdom' Debate: Hosted by Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan, the panel consisted of:
Andrew R. T. Davies: Leader of the Welsh Assembly Conservatives.
Owen Paterson: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
David Mundell: Conservative MP for Scotland
Annabel Goldie: Leader of the Scottish Parliament Conservatives.
I noticed an interesting dynamic here. The Welsh and Northern Irish speakers did little more than name-check their achievements. On the other hand the Scots, perhaps needing something other than achievements to talk about, gave strong unionist speeches. Annabel Goldie's especially remains for me a highlight of this years conference - probably the most passionate unionist address I've heard a mainland politician give, and you could tell she meant every word.
I did put down to ask a question here, but I was not reached. None the less, it caught David Mundell's eye and he recalled it when I spoke to him the next day. For posterity's sake, the question was:
"If Nationalists argue their corner at all times, and Unionists only when the polls permit, is it any surprise that the momentum is all in one direction?"
2) Meeting Annabel Goldie: Alright, this one probably has no long-term significance to the future of unionism. But in the middle of an edging-to-aggravated debate with Iain Dale over the future of the Scottish Conservatives, Annabel wandered past and stopped to say hi. When she looked at my name tag, she said:
"Oh, Henry Hill! I know you, you're a blogger."
That blogger almost died of pride right on the spot.
3) Murdo Fraser's Reception: After my encounter with Iain plus a particularly heated exchange of views with a fellow Tory in the bar upstairs, I wasn't up for taking on Murdo's separatism for the third time in one evening, so hid at the back.
Got quite a long chat with his campaign manager. While a perfectly nice man, he failed to assuage the fears I raised in this piece, and I remain hostile to Murdo's proposed dismemberment of the party.
The main thing I noticed - and I noticed this at the hustings the next day, too - is that Murdo and his team are ferociously trying to mask his fundamental proposal with a strong emphasis on continuity. As very little of substance was said at this meeting, I'll address that point more fully when describing the hustings.
Speaking in support of Fraser were Iain Dale of Total Politics and Struan Stevenson, Conservative MEP for Scotland.
4) Scottish Conservative and Unionist Leadership Hustings: See here.
5) Scottish Conservative and Unionist Reception: Despite rushing as fast as I could, I couldn't make it across Manchester in time to see Annabel Goldie's speech. I did see the Prime Minister's, including his laudable statement that he will share a platform with anybody who wishes to stand by the union.
As the Prime Minister was leaving, I managed to resist the less-than-subtle attempts of his security to block me to ask the following question:
Me: "Prime Minister, should Conservatives across our United Kingdom be able to stand as Conservative and Unionist Party candidates when they face the electorate?"
Cameron: "In a word - yes!"
David Mundell also expressed support for my campaign to allow southern Tories to appear as Conservative and Unionist on the ballot paper, as did Jackson Carlaw and Annabel Goldie. A productive evening indeed.
I took the opportunity to ask some questions of Mr Carlaw, mainly clarifying points in his speech. One thing that did stand out for me was his pledge that, if elected leader, he would try to establish a precedent that the Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservatives was always sitting in Westminster, either as an MP or a Peer, in order to improve coordination between Edinburgh and London.
6) Northern Irish Conservative and Unionist Reception: If I have a regret about the Northern Ireland reception, it is that I only got to exchange about ten words with Owen Polley, of 3000 Versts fame. As he put it, I went 'haring off after Lord Empey' and lost track of him.
However, the meeting itself was fine. The speakers were not a particular highlight, although given the nonsense he's had to put up with I was mightily relieved to see Irwin Armstrong at the podium again this year. I also had a chat with the Chairman of the North Down association about the boundary changes - depressingly, he thinks that the new seat of Glenshane will effectively put unionist-held East Londonderry into SF hands. All the more reason for a unionist party that can reach out to Catholics, I suppose.
I did get to speak to Lord Empey, which was very useful. Our discussion this year was not so much about Northern Ireland as the developments north of the border in Scotland. Showing foresight that contrasts markedly with the 'England's difficulty is Ulster's opportunity' nonsense one sometimes hears from unionisms apparent leaders in Northern Ireland, Empey identifies Scottish nationalism as "a bigger threat to the union, and Northern Ireland's place within that union, even than Irish nationalism."
I asked Lord Empey if he feels that Northern Irish unionists should play an active role in any Scottish independence referendum, and he was unequivocal in saying that they should. He added that he would personally take the stand in Edinburgh and Glasgow during any referendum campaign. With luck, this means that representatives of each of the Home Nations will be making the positive case for the union come 2014.
7) Welsh Conservative and Unionist Reception: Shouldn't really be on this list, because I couldn't go. Nor could many people. I wasn't even aware one existed until I bumped into Iain Dale's assistant Grant Tucker, who mentioned he was going. When I asked where it was and why it wasn't in the fringe guide, I was informed that: "We've kept it out of the fringe guide. It's secret, invite only. The Prime Minister's going."
Brilliant. I met a fair number of delegates at the Scottish and Northern Irish receptions who had been looking forward to attending the Welsh event, to find out how this Celtic Fringe Conservative Party had managed to rally so well after 1997. A chance to come together and share expertise squandered, then. I hope that Mr R. T. Davies and the rest of the Welsh Conservatives thought it was worth it.
P.S. Next year, oh Conference overlords, would it kill you to try to schedule the Scottish and Northern Irish (and CF, come to that) receptions at different times? They're the three wings of the party in most need of cultivation, yet they're scheduled so that proper attendance of all three is impossible.