With Blackpool now vetoed by political parties – terrible food, worse hotels and a nightmare to get to – Brighton is the last remaining seaside venue for these annual orgies of plotting and boozing by activists, lobbyists, journalists and advisers.
And it is also the best by a country mile: Bournemouth has the same whiff of bracing ozone, but none of the buzz. Urban Manchester and Birmingham do little for the soul.
But Brighton has it all, particularly if, as at last year’s Labour conference, the sun beats down and you fleetingly feel as if you have been transported to the Promenades Des Anglais in Nice.
In reality, there are always two party conferences operating in parallel.
There is the one you see on the evening news: frontbenchers giving speeches to glassy-eyed delegates in the hall.
Then there is the real conference, conducted over lunches, drinks and an endless round of receptions. It is where schemes are hatched and stories uncovered, where people fight and fall into bed
together. More than one high-profile
political “love child” has been conceived in this heady atmosphere.
Sometimes the two worlds collide.
Come up at 3:30am when the parties are over, and I will give you the time of your life
When the IRA’s bomb detonated the Grand Hotel at 2.54am on 12 October 1984, a young political reporter for a Sunday newspaper was on the beach enjoying the company of one of Downing Street’s “garden girls”, the name given to the teams of pretty, efficient typists at Number 10 (their office overlooks the grounds).
“What the hell was that?” said the reporter as the pebbles shook from the explosion.
“Just keep going,” she told him firmly.
Such assignations are commonplace: conferences are a perfect storm of carnal opportunity for the single – or the reckless.
Thousands of delegates, away from their partners, float from party to party on a tidal wave of free alcohol. By the time they
end up in the hotel bar in the early hours of the morning their inhibitions have all but vanished.
At Brighton last year, a young female political journalist for a national newspaper – who is the closest thing to Taylor Swift in the Parliamentary lobby – sent a frisson through a post-dinner melee by announcing: “I’m hot. Who fancies a swim?”
When a pot-bellied hack protested: “But we don’t have any swimwear,” she just replied: “So what?” Cue a stampede for the seafront.
There is no shortage of attractive young female researchers and lobbyists – and also no shortage of middle-aged men desperately trying their luck with them.
They grow adept at fending off the unwanted advances of drunken admirers, devising cunning stratagems to foil the late-night “corridor creepers”.
Take Susie Squire, a former model from South Africa who was a big hit when she became David Cameron’s press secretary after the 2010 General Election.
At one conference, she became so exasperated by the amount of attention she was receiving that she mounted a sexual “sting” which humiliated two would-be suitors in one fell swoop.
Ms Squire had been cornered at a booze-fuelled evening reception by a middle-aged delegate who told her: “You must come back to my room.” Ms Squire politely declined, but the man continued to press his case, eventually thrusting one of his room cards into her hand and saying: “Come up at 3.30am, when the parties are over, and I will give you the time of your life.”
She then went to another reception, where she was pestered by a second man in similarly persistent terms. Smiling seductively, she reached for the first man’s room card and said: “OK. Here is the key to my room. Come up at 3.30am and I’ll give you the time of your life.”
The ploy worked: one of the men furiously remonstrated with her when he saw her in the breakfast room the following morning.
At the Grand – still the best conference hotel – the bar is usually eight-deep at midnight, when the receptions have ejected guests who are not ready to go to bed.
It will still be rammed at 4am, with revellers starting to gather around the piano for a sing-song (the Sun on Sunday’s
David Wooding likes to run through Chas and Dave’s canon when he is on the stool).
At 6am, two or three stragglers will be draining the last dregs of their wine glasses – as the hotel staff prepare the first tables for breakfast. Some pundits have been known to go directly from the bar to the BBC’s improvised Today Programme studio to give listeners the benefit of their sober judgement.
These small hours of the morning are a dangerous time at conference, when secrets are spilled and bosses told a few home truths.
When a Prime Minister employs a spin doctor who likes a drink, careers can be detonated in the half-light.
So as Gordon Brown’s Premiership was in its death throes, he was fighting a wave of resistance from Ministers still loyal to
Damian McBride, Brown’s devious strategist, fought endless battles against the Blairite guerrillas – flushing out plots
and discrediting the perpetrators with black propaganda.
Mcbride liked – likes – a drink: he was frequently convivial by late morning, so just imagine him at conference.
The night before a big Brown speech, McBride got wind of a rumour that Ruth Kelly was planning to resign to destabilise the PM.
So McBride hatched a plan the night before – he would “resign” her early.
Very early: at 3.30am he grabbed a couple of political journalists he saw drinking at the bar and told them that Ms Kelly had quit. By 4am, the story was running on the news wires – while normal people slept.
The effect? The following day’s news agenda was dominated by Kelly’s departure, McBride’s shenanigans and Brown’s future at Number 10. His speech was barely noticed.
Such is life in the invigorating – but deadly – conference underworld.