Labour conference: the view from CCHQ

Amy Fisher

Former Special Adviser and Conservative Party Director of Communications Amy Fisher reveals what it is like to be working in Conservative HQ during the opposition parties’ conferences.

By convention (such as ‘convention’ has any currency in politics these days), the Government holds off from making any major proactive announcements (such as would normally populate the Downing Street ‘Grid’) in the run up to, and for the duration of, the Labour Party Conference. The same courtesy is usually afforded the other way.

The idea is that both sides then have a fair crack in the media at setting out their domestic stall.  Even more important, surely, this time around given that most of the smart money says this Conference is the last one before a General Election. And Labour are giving it a good go – with promises of free personal care, free prescriptions and scrapping the schools’ inspection body Ofsted.

Another long-standing convention is that both parties let in a couple of folk ‘from the other side’ to Conference. It’s done above the radar these days. So, a couple of lucky Research Department staffers from Conservative HQ will be spending a few days in sunny (meteorologically at least) Brighton.

They’ll be going to a plethora of fringe events. These can be where junior ministers – or even some more senior ones – might give truth to the old adage of ‘loose lips sink ships’. These days, though, it’s less ‘dark arts’ and more a salutary reminder that anyone with a phone can record a nugget or two that can put the cat amongst the pigeons.

But anyone observing the last 48 hours of the Labour Conference might be forgiven for concluding there is very little ‘attack’ work to be done by CCHQ; the Opposition seems to have kicked off with a pretty good aim at their own feet. In his words, the “drive-by shooting” that nearly did for Tom Watson in the bid to oust him as Labour’s Deputy Leader was quite … extraordinary – and apparently stopping just short even of splitting the Party.

Not that Conservatives are necessarily approaching their Conference in Manchester with enormous glee. Security problems in recent years around the ‘secure zone’ have upped the ante. Still, I suppose you don’t really know you’re at Conference until you’ve had ‘Tory scum’ shouted at you at least twice. And since that Theresa May speech in 2017 when ‘Es’ were dropped and ‘Fs’ were offed, memories of the city are pretty painful from the last time the Conservatives were there. Then there’s Brexit to sort out.

Actually, though, this week, many in Conservative circles will be – as perverse as it may initially sound – rather more focussed on their own business than what Labour are up to.

The back end of the summer and early autumn are, for Special Advisers and CCHQ staff, actually quite stressful. There are speeches for Conference to be written. Policy announcements to formulate and copper-bottom. Fact-checking to work through. It may sound self-evident, but if these aren’t done completely thoroughly and properly, things at Conference can go awry very quickly – not least when you have the entire Lobby (political journalists – themselves tired and fractious after three weeks on the road at the various conferences) waiting for any sign of a slip-up.

Home Office officials still talk in rather hushed tones (not in a good way) about the aftermath of the then Home Secretary’s Conference speech in 2011, when she claimed an illegal immigrant avoided deportation because of his pet cat.

So maybe what can be decided in conclusion is that what Labour and the Conservative Conferences really have in common is that both  – on any number of levels – are a bit of an exercise in survival, and perhaps this year more than most.

Amy Fisher is a Director in MHP’s Public Affairs team. Prior to joining MHP, Amy worked as a Special Adviser in three government departments and is a former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.