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There is no denying that conference-goers are divided on a question that goes to the very heart of our identity and outlook: do we miss the seaside? For all the advantages of Birmingham and Manchester, there are those who miss the bracing days of Blackpool and Bournemouth, and a salty windswept stroll along the promenade before the day’s intrigue and plotting.

At my first Tory conference in the northern resort more than 40 years ago, I found digs in one of the guesthouses along the seafront from the Winter Gardens, lacking in those days the funds to stay at the Imperial Hotel with the grandees. After unpacking, I asked the landlady to direct me to the bathroom. “Bath?” came the reply. “Didn’t you have a bath before you came?”

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Formidable security arrangements have become as familiar a part of the conference experience as the noisy protesters and the elevated prices of a pint in the conference hotel (£6.50, since you ask). No-one complains (about the security – they sometimes do about the beer), and the armed officers and the staff checking us through the airport-style screening remain remarkably cheerful throughout their arduous day.

But the lockdown around the conference centre sometimes comes as a shock to the locals. My friend Tim Montgomerie overheard a couple of Birmingham chaps marvelling at the closed roads and the unfamiliar sight of police officers posted every few yards. “I suppose it must be for the conference.” “Yeah. I had no idea Tories were so rowdy.”

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Once again, conference-goers are being harangued by protesters demanding things noisily, though it’s not always easy to tell exactly what – from inside the perimeter we heard a fellow booming something into a megaphone which could have been ‘No Brexit’ but might on the other hand have been ‘Poached Eggs Please’.

It is certainly true that some of the demonstrators are demanding another referendum on Brexit, or a People’s Vote, as they like to call it. Which I always think begs the question – a people’s vote as opposed to what? What was 2016 – a badgers’ vote? Penguins? I suppose they had to choose a name, and they can’t very well call it Try Again And Pay Attention This Time, or Repent!, which is what they really mean.

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At the annual meeting of the National Conservative Convention, the body that leads the voluntary side of the party, Andrew Sharpe, its Chairman, reminded us that it used to be called the National Union of Conservative & Constitutionalist Associations – a splendid title surely worth reviving.

He also reminded us of Robert Peel, the Prime Minister who declared himself anxious to prevent politics sliding into a “vortex of perpetual agitation.” What an extraordinary man Peel was: not only was he a great statesman, the founder of modern policing and the father of the modern Conservative Party, but he evidently also foresaw the advent of Twitter.

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The National Convention is a closed meeting for party members only, so I won’t reveal any of the proceedings except to say that Theresa May was on extremely good form. She was animated and amusing, and answered challenging questions from party members candidly, fluently and persuasively. If only, many were saying afterwards, we heard more of that from the podium and in interviews.

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I think one of the Prime Minister’s problems is that it’s not easy to pursue a compromise and sound principled while you’re about it, and the Chequers deal is a compromise. Almost by definition, its supporters are those who voted to Leave but fear the disruption of no deal, and those who voted to Remain and want to make the best of it while respecting the democratic process. Are there any conviction soft Brexiteers?

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The conference is a great place to bump into old friends, many of whom are kind enough to ask about my health, following my sepsis scare three years ago. I am pleased to provide reassurance on the point. At the age of 72, I tell them, everything works exactly as it should, with one important exception – but help is at hand from modern medicine. Yes, hearing aids have really improved in recent years.

96 comments for: Lord Ashcroft: They want a People’s Vote. So what was 2016, then? A Penguins’ Vote?

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