The Conservatives are holding their annual conference in Blackpool this year, Britain's version of windy city - don't take the allusion too far, though, Blackpool ain't no meat-packing capital.
Anyway, the Conservatives are at Blackpool and amongst other challenges facing the Party (how to make themselves electable, for a start!) is to get around, finally, to choosing a Leader to replace Michael Howard, who announced immediately following the May election that he wished to stand down once a new Leader could be selected. Of the declared candidates for Leadership, we have heard so far only from Malcolm Rifkind, a personable fellow, but really he needs to stand aside and let others get on with the real business - I watched his speech this afternoon and am just now seeing him speaking as part of a question-and-answer panel in the conference hall. He is never, never, never, never (etc, but you get my drift) going to become Leader, far less win an election. Let's move on, and quickly!
Prior to Rifkind, I saw Francis Maude, Chairman of the Party, give his welcome address, the thrust of which was that the Party must become one which "understands and reflects today's Britain" - naturally he received a gratifying round of appluase, but it was very instructive to see/hear the reaction of the conference, a little later, to the speech given by Alan Duncan - some parts were well received, other parts were received in near complete silence, the bits where at least a modest round of applause could have been expected to occur. Everybody knows, now, that Alan Duncan is gay - he is not a 'gay campaigner', any more than I am, but nor is he any longer prepared to dissimulate about this (again, just like me). No surprises, there, then. He criticised, very directly, certain Conservative-run councils around the UK (note by Editor - notably the area covered by Michael Howard's own parliamentary constituency in Kent) which have refused to permit Civil Partnership ceremonies to take place in their areas under the legislation soon to come into effect to permit Civil Partnership between same-sex couples - this was one of the parts of his speech that was received in a very lukewarm manner by the conference. I wrote recently about a shadow defence spokesman (Gerald Howarth) taking issue with the prospect of same-sex couples (whose relationships are registered under the Civil Partnerships Act) occupying married quarters in military accommodation. It is this kind of thing that make me question, again and again, whether the Conservative Party recognises, at core, that there is a problem and that changes need to be made, not just changes sufficent to pay lip service to what so many Conservatives still refer to, dismissively, as political correctness. Maude and Teresa May both reiterated their view today that it is no good hoping that the Conservative Party can rely on increasing disillusion with the Labour government propelling the Conservatives, inevitably, back into power - Maude emphasised that there is nothing inevitable about it.
Later this week we may begin to get a better understanding of whether this message is beginning to sink in to the minds of those at the conference, but it is not until later, when the leadership election is over (possibly in December) that it will be clearer whether, by their choice of a Leader, the Parliamentary and the wider Party have really embraced the need for change. At this stage I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic; as a former Conservative member, albeit one who still (amazingly enough!) wishes it well, I am content simply to observe. I hope it can change.