UK Politics

The Conservative conference protests

Conference

Anti-austerity demonstrations have reached a new pitch outside this year's Conservative conference in Manchester, with party members and MPs running a daily gauntlet of abuse from masked anarchists and other protesters as they queue to get in.

"Have you been spat at this morning?" asks a cheery man as we queued up in the pouring rain.

He tells me he is all for the right to demonstrate but he doesn't like "intimidation".

His friend says she has felt frightened this week - one protester came right up to her face shouting "Tory scum". She feels safe once she is inside the heavily fortified conference zone, but "this is meant to be a democracy", she says, "people should be allowed to debate without being intimidated".

This is her first Conservative conference and is surprised to learn it is not normally like this.

There are always some demonstration outside conferences - 60,000 people took part in a largely peaceful march and rally against austerity and the government's Trade Union Bill on Sunday, in a repeat of a similar demo last year.

But what is new this year is the presence of anarchists in significant numbers and the sustained level of verbal abuse directed at everyone wearing a conference pass.

Tense

Left-wing commentator Owen Jones said that even he had been on the receiving end of verbal abuse, tweeting: "Just had `Tory scumbag' yelled at me as I walked into Tory conference. Novel!"

The demonstrators themselves are reluctant to talk, especially to the BBC, who, one tells me, are "getting as bad" as the rest of the media. "The migrant crisis? Why can't we just say refugees?" She breaks off to carry on barracking conference goers: "Shame on you! How many weak and vulnerable people have you killed today?"

Some delegates bow their heads, others gaze impassively into the distance, a few blow kisses at the mob.

The demonstrators are angry about cuts to benefits and what they see as an assault on the NHS and the welfare state. Iain Duncan Smith is a particular hate figure, along with the prime minister.

There has been something approaching a carnival atmosphere outside the secure zone at times - teenagers were line dancing in the street on Monday, as police officers looked on.

At other times the mood has been tense.

As delegates were queuing up this morning, they watched a police officer with a sub machine gun vault a fence and wrestle a young man with a bulky backpack to the ground, while a police surveillance officer took pictures of the incident with a long lens camera.

Some have blamed the police for not doing enough to protect delegates.

"Tory women being subjected to sexist abuse outside conference and police refuse to intervene - disgraceful," tweeted business minister Anna Soubry.

Home Secretary Theresa May insists Greater Manchester Police are "operationally independent".

London Mayor Boris Johnson - a veteran of 1980s student politics when anti-Tory anger on the streets reached its heights - took delight in mocking "our crusty friends" who threw things at him as he arrived at the conference centre.

"I drew only one conclusion - that we need to do more to encourage sport in schools, because they managed to miss me with every projectile," he said in his conference speech on Tuesday.

At a fringe meeting on whether the Tories should protect the NHS, on Tuesday, Telegraph columnist Janet Daley told panellists struggling to make themselves heard above the sound of chanting protesters to ignore the "din" from protesters who were helping to secure the Conservatives "millions of votes".

When the sound of drums and chanting was replaced by the drumming of heavy rain on the canvas roof the tent breathed a collective sigh of relief.

"What the police could not be bothered to do God has done for us," said a woman in the audience.