Margaret Thatcher was “entranced” by the first Conservative Party Conference she ever attended, held in Blackpool in October 1946.
Perhaps some Thatcher of the future is even now entranced by the proceedings in Manchester, but one hopes for her sake she was lucky enough to miss the opening speeches in the main hall.
Since the hall was two-thirds empty, the chances are she did. “Is this the main hall?” the only woman sitting near me inquired.
A good question, asked by the ambassador of a European power who wanted to make sure she was in the right place to hear the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, speak.
The organisers have moved the main hall out of the imposing old train station, with vaulted iron roof, which is the largest structure in the Manchester conference centre, and into a modern space to one side with all the architectural distinction of a logistics warehouse.
Added to which, there were not many people there when Greg Hands, the Party Chairman, came on to speak. The stewards had managed to get the first 12 rows of seats fairly full, but behind them were great tracts of empty space.
Before the speeches got under way, Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield and one of the party’s many Deputy Chairmen, gave a television interview in which he declared: “We are one big Conservative family.”
A muscle moved in his cheek, as if he found something comic in this assertion. Certainly at this point the Conservative family looked rather small.
Hands came on and began a competent enough speech. “Every single conversation I have had on the doorstep has been improved by the mention of Rishi Sunak,” he said, followed by silence.
“There is no liking for Sir Keir Starmer,” he went on, and was again met with silence.
Only when he said “you can purchase a pair of Sir Keir Starmer flip flops” for £16.99 from the party shop did a warm ripple of applause spread through the audience.
To give a good party conference speech is astonishingly difficult: the passages defending party and indeed government policy are liable to be quite unexciting.
The great party conference orators compensate for this by launching a series of scintillating jibes at the Opposition and its leader.
We instead found ourselves being addressed by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, whose worthy aim was to defend the Windsor Framework.
He received a modest round of applause when he paid tribute to Lord Caine, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office. Everyone who knows anything about Ulster knows Lord Caine ought to be applauded.
The only line which produced more than polite applause was uttered by the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross.
“Nicola Sturgeon is gone,” he said, and some actual whoops were heard. Quite reasonably, he repeated those four words, and got a second round of applause.
But we were back then to platitudes, earning no more than a decorous ripple. Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, admitted, after a staunch defence of Ukraine, that “times are tough, we are behind in the polls, the pundits tell us Labour is a shoo-in” and Starmer is “measuring the curtains” in Number 10.
Shapps recalled that before the first battle of El Alamein, “when the British had their backs to the wall and Rommel seemed triumphant”, the British commander, Claude Auchinleck, declared: “Let’s show him where he gets off.”
The audience liked this glimmer of defiance. Cleverly, when he came on, offered a memory of hard times in 2019 when “the gloomsters and the doomsters” were predicting a hung parliament.
Cleverly did not mention that it was Boris Johnson who coined the term “gloomsters and doomsters”, and led the Conservatives to victory in December 2019, but it was impossible to avoid reflecting that the present Government lacks even one orator able to do what Johnson did year after year, namely deliver a barnstorming speech at the party conference which makes Conservatives feel good about being Conservative.
On leaving the main hall, I came across an excited queue of Conservative Party members queuing for an event from which the press was excluded: a question and answer session with Rishi Sunak.
Perhaps the Thatcher of the future went to that, and was entranced.