As I entered the hall where Philip Hammond was about to speak, a short film about him was being shown. He was talking about Runnymede, which is in his constituency, and was about to name his “favourite historical figure”. For a wild moment, prompted no doubt by conference-induced sleep deprivation, I thought he was going to name King John, conventionally reckoned to be the worst king in English history, who at Runnymede was forced by the barons to agree to Magna Carta.
But the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not gone mad, or developed in late middle age a taste for paradox. He named Margaret Thatcher, conventionally reckoned to be the greatest Prime Minister since Winston Churchill, as his favourite historical figure. Hammond looked as if he was enjoying delivering his speech even more than his audience were enjoying listening to it. Here was no chilly technocrat, but a warm and genial technocrat, who is at last running the department he had hoped to enter, in a more junior capacity, in 2010.
Anyone who requires a few moments’ relief from politics, but does not have time to leave the conference centre, should seek out the short exhibition of photographs of Marilyn Monroe, hung on the landing outside the press gallery which leads towards a lofty footbridge. They are by Eve Arnold, who became friends with Monroe in 1952 and was the only woman who took a large number of pictures of her. The sensibility which informs these photographs is quite different to the usual, somewhat superfluous desire of male photographers to maximise the star’s sex appeal.
Back at the conference, “Sexiness levels are down from the Cameroon years”, according to Quentin Letts, writing in the Daily Mail. Letts as usual is on to something. Being at a Cameroon event was a bit like attending a fashionable wedding, where a conscious effort had been made to make everyone else feel welcome. Despite Theresa May’s personal interest in fashion, being at one of her events feels quite different. Life is real and life is earnest, and the future lies with manufacturing, not with finance. According to Letts, the whole event is “more redolent of a Midlands industrial networking club dinner”.
The real pleasure of these conferences is social rather than political. One sees in a short space of time old friends whom one has not bumped into since Manchester a year ago. Many of them were understandably keen to attend that highpoint of the conference calendar, the drinks reception given by the 1922 Committee and ConHome. The Prime Minister gave a short speech in which she pointed at James Cleverly MP and said, “I still haven’t had that kiss.” She is in many ways a reassuringly traditional figure.