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Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chris Skidmore recalls the slip-ups and opportunities that make a Conservative Party conference

Last year’s lockdown hiatus on party conference season might have heralded a new dawn of virtual fringe events conducted from one’s sofa or children’s bedroom.

Alas, the clamour for in-person policy debates (how else to justify value for money for expensive conference fees?) has forced the aluminium platter of cold bacon rolls to return, as we all get back to the traditional dawn of the dreaded 8am breakfast fringe.

Manchester 2021 will be my 15th party conference since 2004. Last year was only my second conference missed since then. The other previous truancy was in 2014, shortly after the birth of my first child. Blissfully unaware of what was occurring at a time of several Conservative MPs defecting to UKIP, I was rung up by a paranoid, and panicking, CCHQ, fearful that my absence hinted that I was about to be next. Turns out that the old saying is true: half the job is simply turning up.

Someone will screw up

Perhaps there is another adage that every politician should keep in mind. Someone or something will screw up. Trust me, I’ve been there myself on enough occasions. In 2006, I was a young adviser to the then shadow education secretary David Willetts. Among his education team was one Boris Johnson, our higher education spokesperson. Our advisory team included at the time Rachel Wolf (future manifesto writer and founder of Public First), Nigel Fletcher (now at King’s College London) and the FT’s Chris Cook.

We briefed members of the shadow team on what not to say and which subjects to avoid, including Jamie Oliver’s latest public health musings. It made little difference, as the ensuing media scrum that resulted from comments about pushing burgers through school railings demonstrated. 

Spilling secrets

Fast forward a year, and I’d been promoted to deputy chairman of the Conservative Research Department under, now Lord, James O’Shaughnessy. I’d been tasked with fact-checking and finalising all of the conference announcements and their pre-prepared press releases. Working through the night, I finally sent the finished documents at around 4am to Matt Hancock, then George Osborne’s chief of staff, before grabbing some sleep.

Four hours later I was woken by an angry phone call from Hancock asking why he had just been sent all the top-secret conference announcements by the secretary of the Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock; the confusion of email addresses was so frequent that she had become accustomed to auto-forwarding mistaken emails. I knew I was in real trouble.

I waited anxiously throughout the conference to see if a newspaper had got hold of a leak of the policy announcements. Day after day passed and still nothing. Finally, Osborne, then shadow chancellor, got to announce the inheritance-tax cut that saw the Tories rally in the polls and forced Gordon Brown to call off a planned general election. How different things could have been.

But that was the end of my stint—for the time being at least—in CCHQ. As it turned out, the candidate in my local seat, Kingswood, near Bristol, stood down in frustration at having just printed 40,000 leaflets ready to fight the now-aborted general election. Two and half years later, I won the seat, rather unexpectedly. According to some eyewitnesses who recalled the soon-to-be chancellor, Osborne, watching the TV screens as I gave my victory speech (I was the first Conservative gain of the night), he turned to say: “I thought we got rid of that one who leaked all my policies.”

It just goes to demonstrate that the reality behind the conference rhetoric can be haphazard and, at times, chaotic.

Speaking events

It’s what makes conference so compelling. This time, having been relieved of my ministerial duties, I don’t have to worry about misspeaking so much, but I remain determined to use ‘CPC21’, or so the hashtag goes, as a platform.

I’m speaking at events ranging from space technology to nuclear regulation and the opportunity for hydrogen power, the social determinants of health, and making Britain a life sciences superpower, as well as getting stuck into the Higher Education Policy Institute and UPP Foundation roundtable on the future role of universities.

I’m also launching the first report from the Lifelong Education Commission that I established with Res Publica. This report, The Pathway to Lifelong Learning, is one of a series to be published by the commission over the next nine months (expect more to come in November and January).

It investigates how we need to become more flexible, including removing current funding barriers for students studying secondary qualifications at an equivalent or lower level than their first, and how we must place learners at the centre of their educational journeys if we are to succeed in offering genuinely transformational lifelong learning.

At a crossroads

This year’s party conference comes at a crossroads; with the pandemic potentially fading away, the challenge now turns to levelling up, addressing inequality and driving opportunity. And with a spending review just a few weeks away, now is the time to set out a policy stall that might gain traction.

As Labour politician Barbara Castle once said: “Politics is not just about policies: it is about fighting for them in every available forum and at every opportunity.” And where better to fight for them than in the forum and opportunity that party conference brings?

Of course, be on the lookout for those inevitable mistakes and missteps—to err is to be human, and all that—but keep your eye out, above all, for the ideas that emerge from the fringes because perhaps one day they could become government policy.

Chris Skidmore MP is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Universities and a two-time former universities and science minister