My first Conference was 1972. I attended as a student from Lancaster University. Pre-security days, there was no queuing to enter the Conference hotel, no Conference pass required; you could just walk in off the street and observe the Prime Minister at close quarters with no security pass.
Over the last nine years, I have seen Conference preparation from a closer perspective during the time I have been on the Board of the Party.
Those nine years, all in opposition, have seen a transformation in morale and motivation. The early years were challenging times, with much hard work behind the scenes to attract respectable numbers and keep morale at a reasonable level. Even in those times, it was a great privilege working with the then Leader and Party Chairman, William Hague and Michael Ancram: always positive and focused on the challenge ahead.
One Conference stands out. 2003 was the Conference I chaired as President of the National Convention. I had the idea of a quality reception on the floor of the Winter Gardens and wanted to call it "Celebrating Success". We didn’t have a great deal to celebrate – but I was determined to raise morale. The Conference company we had used for many years said it would not be possible: too much work in removing the chairs following the afternoon session; they asked what would happen if we only sold a couple of hundred tickets – would the Leader and Shadow Cabinet attend?
I was determined to proceed. The evening was a sell-out with 1,200 people attending with the Leader and Shadow Cabinet. Quality champagne properly chilled, actors, magicians and other artists provided entertaiment: a great success.
On arrival at Blackpool's Imperial Hotel for that same Conference, I was discreetly told by a professional colleague that I should prepare for a change of Leader that week. Again, I was determined that would not happen. It would be far too damaging to our Party during our Conference week. Once again, it did not happen. A great deal happened behind the scenes to ensure we ended the week largely in tact.
This year, how very different: morale and motivation high; a united Party; events sold out and over-subscribed; a determination to win next year. Long may this continue – enjoy Conference.