Young Conservatives Conference


1. Entrance

The world’s third most famous woman is wearing flowing Silk Cut purple. Her fixed, joyless smile and wayward waving — the symbols of our modern nation — blaze across the platform’s blue backdrop, past its imaginative slogan (CONSERVATIVE YOUTH – BRITAIN’S FUTURE), gigantic flowerbed, invisible autocue screens and water jugs.
BBC and ITN cameramen — slovenly, jaded faces in overcoats, obvious among the shiny, fresh-faced, suited Young Cons — spring into action, brandishing their absurdly big, woolly microphones.
There are police gunmen on the roof, sniffer dogs in the hotel garden, metal detectors and explosives scanners on the front door as The Lady is received with a rosy-cheeked anticipation worthy of an appearance by Jason and Kylie at the Smash Hits Readers’ Party Conference. She does not seem remotely real, just a TV image, blown up to life-size; a clever, 3D effect. Nothing like a person, a human person.
When she reaches the microphone, addressing us as “friends of Freedom” (my first time), Thatcher is flanked by two smiling men many have predicted will be her two successors: on her left Kenneth Baker, and on her right the eager, beaming face of Andrew Tinney – purely her own political progeny, toy boy creation, and Chairman of Thatcher’s Children.

2. Nostalgia

Legalized incest, heroin and pedophilia; a privatized police force; the re-introduction of hanging; repatriation; flogging and fox-hunting; the abolition of the NHS and abortion: ultimate enterprise, all-powerful market force(s). The market gets what the market wants…
Those were the days, the halcyon days, when Young Conservatives really knew how to have a conference; how to make a splash. They wore T-shirts with HANG NELSON MANDELA or the words REMEMBER THE BELGRANO written over a picture of Ted Heath’s yacht Morning Cloud. They went on patrol with the Contras in Nicaragua. The Sun ran front-page headlines: 100 TORY YOBS ON THE RAMPAGE. The world took notice. Great days.
The Federation of Conservative Students (the FCS – even the name sounded like a football firm) was abolished by Norman Tebbit in 1986. Not, as is popularly thought, because it was too right-wing – an amusing notion – but because they had become the Tories’ Militant faction, an embarrassment and a liability. The straw that broke the camel’s back came when Harry Phibbs called Harold Macmillan a war criminal, in an official Tory journal. Those were the days. Those days are gone.

3. Torquay

The 30th National Young Conservative Conference opens with a sober Andrew Tinney, the pleasant party-line face of the New Youth, telling the thousand delegates: “We are on trial with the media this weekend. If we perform well, and listen to all sides of the argument, I believe we will have achieved a great deal for the party.”
He implores his audience to “take this opportunity to tell the world what it is to be a Conservative, what it is to be a Young Conservative…”
The lid is down. Fringe meetings are kept to a minimum. Officious stewards swiftly surround aggressive hecklers. Union Jacks are gravely confiscated. Conference motions are selected by a cautious committee, overseen by Central Office, with only two delegates voted for by YC members.
“It’s called Party Democracy,” one of the delegates laughs. “Otherwise we look like the Labour Party, squabbling.”
The days of heckling guest speakers and throwing paper darts at the Committee are clearly over.
Although its membership, once nearly a quarter of a million circa 1950, is now nearer 5,000, the importance of the YCs should not be underestimated. Nearly half of today’s Tory MPs were YCs — Norman Tebbit, John MacGregor, John Major, Linda Chalker, David Hunt, Patrick McLoughlin, and former YC Chairman Peter Walker among them. 24-year-old YC Wets’ leader Lawrence Harris, will be the youngest ever Tory candidate when he stands for Stoke-on-Trent North at the next election, tells me: ‘The YCs are good training. If you’re ambitious and work hard you will progress through the party very quickly.”
Torquay 1990 is very well managed, stage-managed. The first two motions are passed with just three hands raised against. Things have changed. Contrary to stereotype, the YCs are — or were — historically Wet. Wetter than wet: wet, wet, wet. That was before Tinney.
Tinney and the Wets have fought two vigorous, bloody elections with Tinney taking power by just two votes, stretching his majority to over 100 in March this year. (Rather than one man/one vote, local chairmen vote for the Party Chairman. Tinney refutes my reference to a TUC-style ‘block vote’, calling it “a representative vote.”)
Accusations of dirty tricks and hate mail reached their pinnacle when Tinney and Doug Smith — a political consultant to the Committee for a Free Britain known for wearing the T-shirt favoured by Public Enemy (presumably for different reasons) featuring Malcolm X, a machine gun and the slogan BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY — were connected to the Ulster Orange Lodge and The Monday Club by a letter. The Wets denied the plant and alleged it was a smear by the Right implicating them in planting smears.
Accusations of forgeries, vote-rigging and even bugging followed and even this year Tinney supporters were refused entry to Wets’ parties and discos. Tinney dismisses it as “a lot of lies, a lot of smears, whereas we just tell the truth.”
It’s unsurprising that the political passions run so fiercely. In the past, the YCs opposed much of Thatcher’s vision, particularly privatization and ‘the Enterprise culture’.
Today the Wet faction favours a United States of Europe and a strong NHS. Some of them (not Harris) oppose student loans and the Poll Tax. Tinney recalls Wet Chairman Richard Fuller calling Norman Tebbit “a thug and a political mugger.” Less than two years ago, the Wet YCs elected Ted Heath as President for life.
Andrew Tinney winces at the very thought of it.

4. The Tinney Team

The Tinney Team’s literature at YCs’ elections is renowned for the prominence of one word. ‘Tinney’.
Like many of the delegates gathered in Torquay, Tinney, 25, cannot really remember LBT: Life Before Thatcher. What little he does remember — power cuts, train strikes, Dennis Healey’s budgets — sticks in his gullet like a fishbone. After a brief career as a child actor, doing commercials for Kelloggs and Fairy Liquid and the TV adaptation of Carrie’s War, Tinney joined the Woking YCs at 14. His mother had been a Conservative county and borough councillor and his father, a tax inspector, attempted to become a Euro MP.
Tinney recalls his first public speech, as an eight-year-old: “Class elections, during the General Election of February ’74. I did win actually, yes, 54 percent of the vote.” He grins and laughs excitedly.
Tinney’s extensive array of self-publicity shows he became Social Secretary of the Woking YCs at 14. This sounds impressive until he reluctantly admits there were only five members at the time. Still, he was Chairman at 17, Chairman of Surrey Peace Through NATO at 20, Chairman of Surrey YCs at 21. He took A-level Government, Economics and Law and at 22 was Chairman of the Conservative Students at the LSE, where he studied Accountancy and joined the FCS. Recent campaigns were aided when his employers gave him a two-year sabbatical. Opponents have pressed him without success to detail his finances, fuelling rumours of backing from everyone from the 1922 Committee (whose leader Cranley Onslow is Tinney’s local MP with a 17,000 majority) to the far-right Committee for a Free Britain. Even the Moonies, the Mormons and South Africa have been suggested as backers.
Tinney smartly sees that this is the age of rock video politics. He makes rock music entrances accompanied bv lasers and dry ice, using cheerleaders in Tinney Team sweatshirts. He has organized a YCs hotline, mail outs, press releases and YC appearances in Kilroy, Reportage and the Question Time audience, talking about acid house, the Vietnamese and identity cards.
Like a character performed by Griff Rhys-Jones or Hugh Laurie, Tinney is cocky and condescending, never hesitating before speaking and grinning as he speaks. Super-smooth, super-smug, super image-aware, Tinney makes Jeffrey Archer look shy and retiring. He makes Archer look pleasant.
It’s a question of manner rather than manners. He exudes the eager-to-impress insincerity and forced friendliness of a self-awareness programme or a tele-sales conference. He phrases his sentences like a local radio journalist talking glib gibberish, grinning the eager grin of someone immune to listening to what anybody else has to say, making remarks, like “This is Alex who shares an office with me, when we’re both in, which is very rarely”, which, judging by his grin, he finds hilarious.
When he says, “What can I do for you ?”, it’s as if he were a diamond merchant or a legal advisor (something important). He even answers the phone with a brusque “CCFYCs” as if it were NATO. Everything he says is important.
Tinney confides the necessity of listening to all news items on his way to meetings, in case his public expects a comment, and refers to the party having “a number of very good MPs like Michael Portillo and John Redwood” with a smug superiority that would be patronizing if they’d used it to describe him.
For an organization with 5,000 members he takes both it and himself seriously to a degree that is almost funny. When I recall the funniest line of the conference — a pompous twit describing the NHS as the biggest employer in the world after the Red Army and the “ludicrously overstaffed Indian State Railway” — Tinney butts in with, “It’s absolutely true, as well”, and explains why.
Despite his image as an ambitious and narcissistic self-publicist (his business card consists largely of a photograph), Tinney likes to maintain: “I only became Chairman as a result of pressure from a lot of people around me… Actually, the interesting thing about me [look out] is that every position I’ve ever run for has been contested. Why did I join the YCs ? I believe in Free Enterprise. I believe that people work better when they’re motivated. That has been my experience right the way through my life. I also do not believe the State owes anybody a living. I believed the Conservatives alone were the party to uphold freedom of the individual and individual liberty, which was important to me… I do think Conservatives have a greater sense of community than any other party.”
Tinney was described to me at Torquay as a very Dry Wet; a Dry who appeals to Wets; a Wet Dry; a Dry pretending to be a bit Wet. A man for all seasons then ?
But by most people’s reckoning, including his own, he’s a by-the-book, mainstream Thatcherite blue blood: Dry as a bone. (He was also described to me as “a ruthless go-getter”, “a harmless manipulator” and “a spineless wanker”.) His rival, Harris, is far simpler: he is soaking Wet.
Besides Summer Conventions and Talent Transfer Schemes, under Tinney, the YCs also published right-wing MP John Redwood’s Popular Capitalist Manifesto. Tinney’s actual policies, buried as they are beneath layers and layers of rhetoric, opportunism and pragmatism, we’ll come to later.

5. The New Youth

Times have changed. Tories have changed. Like the rest of Britain, they have wised up. The basic reason why the extremist libertarians faded, why they have failed is simple: extremism just didn’t pay off. It doesn’t pay to rock the boat. Although many delegates told me they joined the YCs for “a friendly get-together”, you’d have to be pretty desperate to endure the wet weekend in Torquay. Now, after years as a cosy, mild social club, the social insider-dealing and old boys’ network ensure that there are contacts and careers to be made.
So here they are, the Young Tories: a tide of white (only three or four black faces); of boisterous Bunter types, horsey Bunty types, city slickers, thin streaks of rich superiority, chinless wonders, arch idiots. They are brokers and barristers named Justin or Hugo, anemic academic in suits, sporting proud Union Jack kerchiefs in their breast pockets, True Blue rosettes in their ladies’ hats. All the eager stereotypes and, of course, plenty of personable, mild nondescripts — normal people — fine young men and women, young and clean, using phrases I thought real people never really used, like starting their sentences with the words “as a taxpayer…”
It should not be surprising that on Sunday morning The Sunday Sport sells out long before The Sunday Telegraph, or indeed, any other paper.
They are bristling with wealth, health and prospects, stuffed with patriotic pride, oozing confidence and money, New Money. Confident Money. Young Money. More like Mayall’s New Statesman hair gel and suit than the old school tie. Crisp striped City shirts abound. Their laughter goes haw-haw-haw, like crows crying, and their trilling mobile phones punctuate the debates like grasshoppers. They are the Young Conservatives. The New Youth.

6. Buzzwords

On my seat a copy of The Campaigner (formerly One Nation) lists the day’s motions and such lottery prizes as a £500 Harrods hamper, a half- day tour of Saatchi & Saatchi, and a biography of Joan Sutherland signed by authoress Norma Major and her husband. It describes a YC visit to the PM’s offices: “Andrew Tinney congratulated the Prime Minister on her Bruges speech as “a call to arms against the spirit of Governmental corporatism in the European Community.”
The motions for debate condemn the NUS and its closed shop; call for a strong NATO, a Free Market broadcast policy; support the view that a clean environment “has to be paid for.”
The only contentious motions are the two members’ poll choices: “This Conference calls upon HM Government to provide incentives for employers to establish creche facilities for employees of both sexes” (I know it doesn’t sound contentious) and “This Conference believes that there would have been no Ambulance Strike had the Ambulance Service been privatized.” There is also a financial appeal: “Freedom of Speech has to be paid for.”
Guest speakers include Kenneth Baker, Tom King, Geoffrey Howe, Nicholas Scott, Norman Fowler, David Hunt, Francis Maude and Michael Howard. The Ambulance motion forces Kenneth Clarke to withdraw only for the cautious committee to engineer a swiftly re-phrased amendment. “No way were we going to allow that motion to go on. It gave people the wrong signal,” Harris tells me later.
Sadly, there are no debates on law and order, immigration or the Poll Tax, no abortion or Hong Kong, no hunting or hanging. There are far livelier debates going on in the bar. Tinney: “We debated those issues last year. Some people wanted to debate hanging. It would have been more or less the same.”
The atmosphere is one of school speech day: Tinney as head prefect, Baker as shining headmaster, Sir Geoffrey Howe as dozing school governor, Thatcher as matron.
Speeches are underlined by the muttering hecklers who utter a supportive stream of “well said”s, punctuated by dissenting barks of “scum”, “traitor”, “rubbish” and “shame”. “Bollocks”. That was another one. ‘Fat bastard” and “ugly lesbian” were two more, both addressed to members of the Committee. Most are good-humoured (especially this last, addressed as it was to a man with glasses and a beard), fuelled mainly by canteen alcohol. Self-important “hear hear !”s ring out like circling seagulls.
Key Conference buzzwords to revive any dying speech include ‘privatize’ (“hear ! Hear ! Hear !”), the favourite comedy prop ‘Kinnock’, ‘strong rule of law’, ‘the collapse of Communism’ and ‘hawks in the Kremlin’. The first hearty round of applause rings out for those two beautiful, blue buzzwords, ‘Margaret’ and ‘Thatcher’, followed by ‘our incomparable leader’ — an ambiguous phrase if ever I’ve heard one.
Major pariah buzzwords include the GLC, IRA, ILEA, CND, and NUS. The NUS is pro-IRA, PLO, lesbian mothers, pro-abortion, Nicaragua, the Miners’ Strike, Wapping violence, Troops Out… I never knew they were such a terrifying body of world subversion. There’s talk of “Red Fascist Organizations” (a fine name for a band), a joke about Steve Biko Hall being renamed ‘Sgt Bilko Hall’ and a good story about a SWAPO student snack bar. If you’re going to be a YC you might as well be an extreme one. Mentions of Mandela (this was before his release) receive hisses and mutterings of “Communist” and “Sambo”. Even their insults are living in the past.
Tinney tells me, “Those people who hissed Mandela probably were actually joking — they’re good-natured.” He seems to think the enthusiasm of his grin will convince me of anything.
The notion of subsidized creches in industry is greeted with squealing horror. Creches are ‘the thin end of the wedge’ (buzzword).
“Creches break up the family,” roars one speaker. “Sound !” barks someone from behind me, in the manner of Bradley Hardacre. “Where will it end ?” asks the speaker. “Subsidies on pensioners ? Subsidies on Zimmer frames ? Let the market work.”
How they cheered. Motion defeated. Basically the girls wanted creches and the boys wanted the girls at home in the kitchen.
Government speakers offer few highlights. Baker has the tenacious gleam of a man smart enough not to be smarmy, clever enough not to be pinned down as a Wet or a Dry, and has The Statistic of the Conference — “30 million days lost during the 1979 strikes.” He chides Kinnock effortlessly. The young YCs clapped and giggled like kids watching the magician at a children’s party.
Geoffrey Howe says things like, ‘the torch of freedom marches Eastwards,” strangely shaking his clasped hands together – his idea. “We’ve set our people free,” he says without any obvious irony (or point).
Finally Tom King does a sort of “Hello campers” speech, even invoking “the spirit of those who fought in the Battle of Britain [buzzword], those at Dunkirk.”
Then he announces that he wants to reveal the three great lies of life: “One: the cheque’s in the post’. Two: ‘I’ll call you back.’ Three…”
For one moment I wonder if Tom King is going to tell the virginal young Tories the ‘I won’t come in your mouth’ lie, but no. “Three: The Labour Party is united behind Neil Kinnock.”
My heart missed a beat.

7. Photo-fear

The eternal fear at Conference is of being photographed off-guard, of ending up on the front page of The Independent captioned as “a delegate smiling admiringly at the Prime Minister.” Zoom lenses stalk like snipers, hard to spot, harder still to avoid. Their threat is constant.
There is one candidate — black-suited, spike-haired, disturbed expression — a perfect target for the cliche reversal photo they love, a glorious photo opportunity. It is me.

8. Assassination

I spend most of Mrs Thatcher’s speech estimating my chances of assassination, of racing the twenty feet between us, hurdling the flowerbed (now I know why they’re always so huge), vaulting the podium, and plunging my biro into her heart or her eye.
I have my eye on an ITN tripod that would do the job. I contemplate getting BLITZ’s name splashed across every newspaper in the world when I realize I should have discussed terms with my editor first — bail, for example.
Pity. I have a clear aim. She was directly in front of me: Silk Cut suit, her gentle bouffant hairdo like a golden-brown halo, a saintly aura. Her glazed eyes have all the mad simplicity of Rose from The Golden Girls, slanting like Mao’s exactly in parallel with her shoulder pads. I’m sure this is significant.
She says nothing much. She blows Baker’s trumpet (as it were) and waxes lyrical about Tinney’s “usual brilliant style.” She makes a joke (!) — “As a Thatcher, I oppose a roof-tax” — to desperate displays of laughter and much hugging of ribs. Christ, how we laughed at that one. Laugh ? I thought I’d have to call an ambulance.
Tinney is rapt, leaning forward like a nodding dog or an attentive parrot. I think how reassuring — how important and right — it must be to agree with the PM on the Big Issues, to frown knowingly and nod wisely, barking “hear hear !” You must feel great. You must feel at least 15. Tinney announces delegates’ questions from the floor, which were supposedly drawn from a hat. My entry had been “When was the last time you had sex ?” but it wasn’t read out.
Dennis claps excitedly when Thatcher mentions the generosity of the English towards the Scots. The word ‘oil’ is not mentioned. When a brown-tongued Tinney expresses his hope for “a fourth, fifth, and sixth term in office”, Dennis’s smile drops.
As they exit he waves regally, and people say “God bless ‘im”, acknowledging his role as our male Queen Mother: useless but harmless.

9. “Aye-Aye/Aye-Aye/Moo-sey”

“Are you with [the steward almost looked around] The Party ?”
“Not as such.”
“Oh. Oh dear.”
When I tell her “Press”, she looks at me with disdain, her expression somewhere between a sneer and a spit, as if I had said, “Diseased Marxist Child Molester.”
I arrive at Saturday evening’s YC ball to find a Conservative conga snaking its way round the hall chanting the classic Modern Romance chorus ‘Aye-aye aye-aye Moo-sey’ — a strange and frightening sight. The ball is, after past glories, subdued — the lashing rain dampened spirits.
The obvious chat-up here of course is, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this ?” However my theory that, Joan Ruddock excepted, politics and beauty do not hold hands is proven. There is nobody even remotely desirable, drunk or otherwise.
At the bar, a Young Farmer is complaining that his hotel bar doesn’t open after breakfast. Down from Blackpool, he hates Mancunians, Liverpudlians and Scots. Southerners are worse. His views on foreigners, Pakistanis and blacks are not worth repeating.
“Look,” he shouts in my face, “these people in Hong Kong may be rich Conservatives, but they’re still yellow, right ?”
Someone makes his day, his conference, by telling him the joke about why there’s no AIDS in Liverpool (“They’re never off their arses long enough”). Next to him is a well-spoken Lemmy lookalike in a denim sawn-off. I notice his badges, the regalia: the Chairman of the Southall branch.
A banker tells me he converted to Conservatism as a nine-year-old delivering anti-Labour leaflets.
“I didn’t like Harold Wilson. I didn’t like his raincoat. I remember the power cuts during Top of the Pops. I though it was a disgrace, frankly, even then.”
A steward quickly takes him aside “If you want to get on in the world, son, never talk to the press.”
Another lad recalls throwing stones at the local Liberal MP, (also perhaps significantly, as a nine-year old) and getting caned for it. “I bet you enjoyed that,” smirks the banker.
Talk turns, inevitably, to hanging, to discipline. One of them — a pompous, greasy-haired twerp in a plain leather jacket and striped City shirt with an expression that looks as if he’s just noticed he’s got dogshit on his shoes — advocates privatizing the hanging, charging the public admission, as he puts it, “to make it pay for itself, make a fat profit.”
Only one young man all weekend is sharp enough to ask me my own political views (nihilist anarchist cynic) before talking to me.
“What this country needs is vigilante groups,” he snaps. “Lots of them. An organized network. Kick some arse.” No arguing with that. He could be serious.
Dancefloor fillers include Rebel MC, Technotronic, Depeche. “Aciiiiid” is the cry from the counties. The evening ends with me getting a bottle of champagne for spotting Monty the banker wearing his monocle (I simply followed him until he put it in) and with the words “It’s off to the casino then, Boris” ringing into the night.

10. Exit

Tinney’s future, unlike that of Laurence Harris, is unclear. He finds local councils “tedious”, evidently small-time. “A lot of councils have become glorified social workers.”
He plans to return to accountancy next year and then see. He’s admitted that an MP’s salary might not be good enough.
“Anyone who can say it is,” states Harris categorically, “is a defective politician in my view.”
He is here, he says, “to help people, solve people’s problems.”
Only time will tell how Thatcher’s Children grow up.