It’s party conference time – but not as we know and love it (and often hated it, too).
Gone are the three weeks of plotting and posturing in big halls, whispered briefings over tepid food, grazing on sausage rolls at fringes and rounding each day with liver-destroying receptions.
This year, thanks to coronavirus, it’s all online. Welcome to the e-conferences, an event that everyone can attend but, frankly, may prove tame since the best action usually takes place not on stage but in bars, corridors and nearby kebab houses.
For the control freaks at No 10 or Victoria Street it is a dream come true – a chance for ultimate message discipline without MPs or members. No chance of it being derailed by an unauthorised 3am reshuffle briefing in the Radisson Hotel bar.
They’re doing their best to recreate some of the fun.
Labour is staging a quiz night on Sunday, hosted by MP Ian Murray. And Mayor of London Sadiq Khan will stage a virtual rally of supporters to launch his campaign for a second term in the delayed May 2021 local elections.
At least there is no risk of ending up in the grotty hotels that attendees have found themselves in. One distinguished journalist recalls waking to the patter of maggots falling from the ceiling onto his pillow in an infamous Blackpool dive.
In Bournemouth, Andrew Marr was once among around 20 hacks and MPs locked out of their hotel at 1am because the concierge had locked up and gone to bed. A future Political Editor climbed through a window to let them in via the fire door, setting off the hotel alarms.
For many Tory MPs in particular, conference is a ghastly circus to be avoided at all costs. One veteran confided he would not be tuning in even to a virtual gathering: “With any luck I’ll be a thousand miles away, hopefully somewhere hot.”
The first of the big conferences is Labour Connected. It runs from Saturday to Tuesday and is free to members.
Three keynote speeches will run live: live: deputy leader Angela Rayner and shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, both in studios, and finally leader Sir Keir Starmer on Tuesday at 11am, expected to with an audience.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds will speak at a members-only forum, with highlights released.
Among star turns, NZ premier Jacinda Ardern will give a video message and Gordon Brown will take part for the first time since his farewell in 2010 at a panel on the Global Response to Covid, chaired by Lisa Nandy.
Olaf Scholz, Angela Merkel’s SPD vice chancellor and minister for finance, will also drop by … though he may be miffed to see his name misspelled as Schultz.
Some 15,000 people have signed up so far. Sadiq Khan’s virtual rally on Sunday will see a procession of Labour grandees line up to endorse him and the other mayors.
Social distancing isn’t too much of a problem for Ed Davey’s shrunken band.
The conference will run from September 25 to 28 and is being talked up by HQ as “a jam-packed 4 day agenda, with something for everyone”.
It’s £40 to register (£10 concessions) and the treats include live Q&As with MPs and party figures, proper debates on Europe, racial justice and tackling climate change, plus the chance to “make friends” in virtual meetings.
Being Lib Dems, there a proper motions to debate. Davey speaks around 3pm on Monday the 28th.
It is “free, for the first time ever” boasts the excited blurb.
You can watch the speeches, performing the ritual Tory seal clapping on your sofa if you wish, and tour a virtual exhibition hall. They claim you might even FaceTime with Boris or Zoom with Rishi.
Non-members won’t see the secret “special features” lined up for card-carrying supporters, and Business Day attendees will pay a hefty £850.
It runs from October 3 to 6, closing with Johnson’s big number.
The traditional conference highlight – vicious plotting against the leader – may be relegated to private What’s App groups, but not even Covid-19 can stop a good old conference bust-up.