By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter.
I offered my thoughts on Cameron's speech yesterday. Max Hastings has the best reaction in this morning's press. It was a good speech, he concludes, but didn't match up to the gravity of these economic times.
This morning I want to briefly focus on the fact that there were hundreds of empty seats at the back of the hall for Cameron's speech. I've never known this before. In previous years it's been standing room only. In the early years of Blair's premiership the Labour Party organised overflow events in cinemas so delegates could watch the leader's speech.
There are all sorts of reasons for this but one big explanation is the huge cost of now going to Tory Conference.
ConservativeHome questioned nearly 400 people attending Tory Conference and asked them to estimate the costs of attendance. After removing the 25 lowest and 25 highest estimates in each category we arrived at the following numbers:
Registration fee: £80
Of course no person has to spend £86 on drink in four days but alcohol isn’t cheap in the conference bars. More significantly many costs are unavoidable. The conference fee, the travel, the accommodation. Veteran party democracy campaigner John Strafford recommends that the fee for attending conference be cut to £20 to encourage more member involvement. Others have suggested we go back to seaside locations like Blackpool. The facilities may not be so good as in Manchester or Birmingham but B&Bs on the Lancashire coast are a lot more affordable for ordinary party members.
I was told by Tory HQ that only 4,000 of the 11,500 people attending the conference were grassroots members. One Conservative minister actually claimed that the number was closer to 2,000 than 4,000. Matthew Parris told me that he struggled to find Tory activists when he went round the exhibition hall trying to make a video. At fringe event after fringe event (with the exception of Simon Richards' brilliant Freedom Zone) 70% and more of questions are asked by NGOs, business representatives and journalists. The party makes a huge profit from conference but it is a great shame that it's now hard for ordinary members to afford to come to what should be a festival of politics. I've had talks in the last few days about ConservativeHome setting up an affordable and very political centre right conference where we bring together conservative historians, academics, journalists and elected representatives to discuss big ideas. Watch this space.