ANDREW NEIL he Tories have rarely gathered for a conference in such inauspicious circum- stances. William Hague continues to make zero impact on the country (even Tory vot- ers continue to prefer Tony Blair, the son every Middle Britain mother would like to have had), while his shadow cabinet is regarded by the public as full of has-beens and nonentities. It is especially damning for the Tories that, even in a nation increasing- ly ignorant of its own history, the shadow chancellor, Francis Maude, is not as well known as Pitt the Younger, who died 192 years ago. Mr Maude ensured his further obscurity with a lacklustre speech on Wednesday. Those who are vaguely recog- nised — Michael Howard, Peter Lilley, John Redwood — are among the party's biggest liabilities: few voters are in any hurry to see these remnants of a discredited ancien regime back in power. Meanwhile Tarzan and some of the biggest beasts in the Tory jungle are positively relishing their new role as professional dissidents, much to their young leader's discomfort. Bournemouth's grey skies are a sombre reflection of the current Tory mood.
Yet it would be wrong to write off the Tories. The Sun's penchant for an eye- catching stunt — 'This patty is no more; it has ceased to be; this is an ex-party', with Mr Hague in the role of dead parrot — is worth a chuckle but should not be mistaken for serious political analysis. Those who say there will never be another Tory govern- ment are the same sort who predicted dur- ing Labour's darkest hours in the early Eighties that there would never be another Labour government. The Tories have start- ed to win local government by-election seats again, despite what the national polls say. New blood (like Liam Fox and Ann Widdecombe, the new conference darling and Mo Mowlam of the Tory party) will eventually reinvigorate the party. Gordon Brown's belated admission of the obvious — that we're heading for recession next year — will give the Tories substantial new scope for future mischief. Defending the pound resonates with the country more than the metropolitan media would have us believe. Even diehard Tories do not expect to win the next election and Mr Hague looks destined to be the Neil Kinnock of the Tory party (making a start with essen- tial reforms but unlikely ever to see power). But away from the media's herd-like instinct to do the Tories down, the come- back — slow, stuttering, full of setbacks, but a comeback all the same — is underway. It explains why, despite the many reasons to be gloomy, the party faithful in Bourne- mouth were in surprisingly fine fettle. Europe remains a Tory open sore. Even at the height of Labour's civil war it never managed to produce two former chancellors slugging it out as happened at a packed fringe meeting here. Our Ken accused Wee Norrie of 'paranoid non- sense'; he in turn claimed the Europhiles had misled Britain with their secret agenda of Eurofederalism by stealth. It was a deli- cious spectacle for those who do not have the best interests of the Tory party at heart, so it was fittingly sponsored by the Guardian. Neither combatant, however, said what he really meant. Ken does not believe in the 'wait and see' formula of the Major government: he supports 'wait and join': only the direst economic circum- stances would convince him otherwise. Norman, for his part, would not simply rule out the euro for this parliament and next, as per the party ballot. He wants to ban joining it forever, no matter the economics of the issue. Such fundamentalist positions guarantee that this is a split which will run and run.
The fringe meetings have been very well attended and boisterous, another sign that the party is in better heart than the media portrays. It was also standing room only at the session on the prospects for an English parliament, sponsored by this esteemed organ. This is clearly an idea whose time has come for the Tories, even though the shadow cabinet is divided on what to do and nobody is clear what its shape or form should be. But any sensible answer to the West Lothian question — what to do about the anomaly created by devolution which will allow Scottish MPs to vote on English domestic affairs even though no Westmin- ster MP will have a say in Scottish domestic matters -- will inevitably produce an English parliament of sorts, whether a souped-up English grand committee or a separate, directly elected body. When I quizzed Mr Hague about this on BBC 2's Conference Talk, he was surprisingly recep- tive to the idea. When I suggested that the English parliament should be located in Yorkshire, he thought I was joking. But I was not. Nothing would do more to redress the metropolitan imbalance in our country than placing the English parliament and the domestic civil service somewhere north of Birmingham. London would remain the imperial capital for the whole of the United Kingdom, but I would site the English par- liament in York, for its heartland location, distinguished history and pleasant sur- roundings. Readers, I'm sure, will have their own favourites.
Iwrite these words from the unckr- ground carpark of the Bournemouth con- ference centre, to which the BBC has been consigned for the week. It feels a bit like being in the command bunker during the Blitz: low roofs, cold temperatures, spartan office space, no daylight, meagre rations. All that is missing is the distant sound of the Luftwaffe (the incessant droning of Michael Portillo's comeback campaign is a sufficiently ominous substitute). As usual, the print media are complaining about the supposed hordes of BBC folk covering the party conferences, but when you are servic- ing hours of live coverage (which nobody else does), the only daily television round- up, two national television channels, two all-news channels, five radio stations, all the regional outlets on television and radio and the World Service, you need a lot of people and resources. There are those, of course, who say the BBC should not take the conferences so seriously. But now that ITV has opted out of proper political cov- erage, that leaves only the BBC (and to a lesser extent Sky News) to do the broad- casters' democratic duty. And if the BBC was to opt out of conference coverage those same critics would be the first to complain that the BBC was dumbing down.
Those of us who have had to cover all three party conferences are on our last legs. But after Brighton and Blackpool, it is a relief to be in Bournemouth, where the hotels are clean and comfortable, the restaurants reasonable and the location, high on sweeping cliffs, breathtaking. Blackpool hotels, bar the Stakis one, have long been execrable (some BBC staff take their own duvets and sleeping bags because the sheets are filthy), but Brighton is now vying with it for dirt and squalor. Brighton used to be South Kensington-by-the-Sea; now it is more like Hackney on a bad day. The Labour council that has presided over its seedy demise should be ashamed of itself for turning Brighton into the 'Black- pool of the South'. It would be hard to think of a worse accolade.