‘What happens at Fight Club stays at Fight Club,’ said Brad Pitt to Edward Norton in the cult movie.
The same closed-door policy should operate at party conferences. MPs should not be sent far away from home to drink and plot in hotel bars all night, then pontificate at public events the next day.
No wonder some of the greatest political gaffes of all time have taken place at conference, with some truly awful violations of taste and decency. After all, if the man in charge of upholding the government’s image can manage to get himself arrested at conference, what hope do the rest of them have? Steve Hilton was tired, stressed and emotional after the Conservative gathering in 2008 when he got into a row with train staff. Police were called to Birmingham station and the PM’s director of communications was carted off and fined £80 for disorderly behaviour.
No wonder David Cameron imposes strict rules on what MPs may and may not do at these events. For the past few years, there has been a champagne ban in line with the government’s austerity drive. This year, once again, MPs will be forbidden to be photographed with a flute in their hand, partly in an attempt to curb their consumption, but mostly so they don’t look at odds with the rest of us in triple-dip recession Britain.
In practice, all this means is that they will only drink champagne in private parties in their hotel suites. The debauchery continues apace behind closed doors. Some of the most frenzied partying I have ever seen has taken place at conference. MPs are epic partiers who can drink, argue and even physically fight with the best of them.
Of course, they used to be able to blame the sea air. MPs traditionally gathered in seaside resorts for their annual shindig. A typical conference season would involve a combination of Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton. Every now and then, they would troop off to a genteel spa town like Harrogate, where the tea rooms of old England would reverberate with their raucous behaviour.
But not any more. Not since David Cameron insisted on the Tories relocating their conferences to ‘modern’ metropolitan settings. This has opened the way for a whole new era of embarrassing incidents, with, for example, Tory MPs getting lost in Manchester’s red light district and being found wandering dazed and confused around the Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham.
Fashion is always a big feature of the conference season. Theresa May started it when she made her ‘nasty party’ speech whilst wearing a pair of leopard-print Russell and Bromley kitten heels.
Samantha Cameron now triggers a high-street stampede with her choice of outfit — there was, for example, the fairly unremarkable but endearingly girl-next-door Marks & Spencer spotty dress that sold out in minutes after she wore it to her husband’s speech.
Often, she opts for an eye-wateringly expensive designer blouse, but accessorises it with a high-street skirt and a pair of cheap Zara heels. Then there is the traditional shot of her arriving at conference in her faded denim jeans. Personally I wish she would retire those awful scuffed-up boots she keeps wearing. We don’t really buy that she is feeling the pinch, so she may as well wear Louboutins.
Arguably, the biggest ever fashion faux pas at conference was when generously proportioned David Davis supporters sported tight white ‘DD for me’ t-shirts in aid of his leadership bid. Unsurprisingly, that bid promptly went bust.
The conference visitor should pack strategically. Having attended these events for many years, I would recommend ladies to fill their case with LBDs, big heels and big jewellery. Only use waterproof make-up, because everywhere is going to be jam-packed and you will sweat buckets as you sip warm, cheap white wine and try to make conversation with an even sweatier MP. If you are not careful, once you have traipsed from one reception to another, and listened to endless MPs vent their spleen, you could end up looking like a version of Munch’s The Scream.
As for where to go and what to avoid, we should turn to a veteran of these occasions far more experienced than me. my very close friend Tamzin Lightwater, who has worked for David Cameron for many years and now has a very senior secret role at No. 10, tells me: ‘Avoid events attended by cabinet ministers. No one will say anything, because if they do we take their jobs off them. You may even have to make small talk with Theresa May and once you’ve complimented her shoes that’s it, you just have to stand there in silence wondering if she will put a control order on you if you walk away to talk to Nadine Dorries — so much more fun!
‘Do go to the Spectator party, which will be beyond fabulous. Also, Tory grandees throw super parties. I remember in opposition once, Lord Hesketh had us all over to his suite and the bath was full to the brim with bottles of Pol Roger. I got a bit squiffy and accidentally briefed that we might have to cut child benefit and put income tax up to 50 per cent, which caused a frightful hullabaloo. I was only joking but years later we ended up doing it! I guess that’s politics for you!’