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|Tuesday 23rd September 2003|
Liberal Democrats' Conference
Today presenter Ed Stourton is presenting the programme live from the Liberal Democrats' annual conference in Brighton this week.
I motored down to Brighton in the sun after Sunday lunch (one does not drive to Brighton). There is still something slightly caddish about this regency resort each of the seaside towns where the parties hold their autumn conferences has a "genius loci" with a political hue, and Brighton is definitely Alan-Clark-era Tory at heart. The Liberal Democrats, even in their post-Brent-East-Champagne-Charlie mode, don't seem quite comfortable beneath the sparkling Sussex sun which glitters on Brighton's ornate white stucco fronts.
Late on Sunday afternoon there is an outbreak of electoral responsibility the conference votes not to abolish the Queen.
Elinor Goodman, the political editor of Channel Four News, is incensed that she has been declared "a national treasure" by a senior politician (she is of course exactly that). During a brief encounter outside the Grand Hotel she voices her outrage about another national treasure which (unlike her) is sadly diminished the extent of the recent damage to Brighton's West Pier is really shocking, and no one seems to be doing anything about it. When the sea is as bright and blue as it is at the moment the remains stand out like a charred skeleton, a sad contrast to the gaily coloured prints of crowds gathered for its opening in 1866 which decorate the walls outside my hotel room.
An afternoon spent trying to find people who would be rude about the Liberal Democrats' campaigning techniques - it proved surprisingly easy.
Charles Kennedy is hosting a drinks party, but it does not start until 10.30pm, and with a three am start in prospect I lose heart and duck out. This failure of nerve depresses me and makes me feel old and so to bed, reflecting that I have been coming to these conferences since the days when the Liberal Democrats were plain old Liberals, and the SDP was no more than a gleam in the mischievous eyes of the late Lord Jenkins.
Some enterprising Liberal Democrat has produced a pack of playing cards featuring the party's MPs - it is being sold for charity. It is a good joke, but has not been quite thought through in the light of the American pack of the Most Wanted Saddamites in Iraq. The party leader, Charles Kennedy, is the king of hearts (of course) and the new member for Brent East has slipped in as a joker (the pack went to press before the result, so this was an act of considerable faith). But the unfortunate Don Foster, the party's Transport Spokesman, has been assigned the ace of spades and is getting rather weary of the jokes about his alleged resemblance to the Butcher of Baghdad.
His performance on the programme was heroic notwithstanding there was a delay while the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger came on the line to talk about the very sad death of his columnist Hugo Young, and Foster and I - with doughty assistance from the Network Rail boss John Armitt - filled acres of airtime with a discussion of track maintenance and renewal costs, complete, by the time we finally wound up, with extensive European comparisons. It was not necessarily the subject we or the Lib Dems would have chosen for the longest policy interview of the week so far.
The Sun has gone after Charles Kennedy with a two page spread painting him as a lazy, bibulous left-wing looney. Lord Rennard, the clever clogs who masterminds the Lib Dems campaign strategy, says this is in fact good news because the paper has mocked up a picture of him outside Number 10, which will make voters think of him as a potential Prime Minister. Hmmm.
Charles Kennedy admitted to me in the lift that he spent almost no time at his own bash on Monday night for reasons of feebleness akin to mine; since he is younger than me this made me much less depressed about my failure as a party animal.
By and large, his"cadres" seem a sober lot. Looking at my diary from last year's Tory conference I am reminded that when the Today team turned up at the main hotel in the wee small hours to prepare for our broadcast, the lobby looked like that scene in Gone With the Wind when the camera pulls back for what seems like an eternity, revealing the wounded and dying spread across the streets of Atlanta. There was one young Conservative in a dinner jacket who had passed out on the bosom of a still animated Tory matron-in-the-making, and was drooling gently into her ampleness as she held forth to the few souls still upright.
When I told this story to Mr Kennedy he became indignant; "You certainly won't find any dinner jackets here", he (almost) spluttered. So no doubt where the Lib Dems stand on DJs - we had to go on the air at that point soI was not able to establish the party position on drooling.
All the bathrooms in the Metropole seem to contain a yellow plastic duck. The Today team who went to Stockholm for the Swedish Euro referendum were each promised a "romance dispenser" by their hotel, which included - among several unmentionable items - a "canister of whipped cream". The purpose of the yellow ducks remains as obscure as that of the whipped cream, but they made better mascots, and we placed one in the middle of our makeshift studio table. During three days of interviews not one Liberal Democrat remarked on the fact that we were conducting our in-depth, policy-driven Socratic dialogues under the beady eyes of an aquatic toy. What this says about the party - or indeed us - I cannot say.
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