In my political career I must have been to twenty or so political conferences, Conservative, and in recent years UKIP. After so many, it’s easy to get a bit cynical. But any cynicism was blown away by our 2014 Doncaster Conference which closed on Saturday.
I have simply never seen such a level of enthusiasm, involvement, commitment. Mostly at conferences I’ve got into the habit of avoiding the predictable and formulaic speeches in the main auditorium, and instead focusing on the trade stands and the fringe meetings, and simply networking. At the last few Tory Conferences I went to before I joined UKIP, I focused almost entirely on The Freedom Zone (run by TFA and Simon Richards) where real people had real debates — in contrast to the official programme.
In Doncaster, I found I wanted to be in the main auditorium (and was acutely disappointed when I found I had to miss Diane James’ presentation on Justice & Home Affairs to go and chair a Countryside Alliance fringe).
We had an amazing array of speakers: women and men; young and old; former Tories and former Labour Party members. And if you are concerned about ethnic diversity, we had a British Muslim of sub-continental extraction (Amjad Bashir MEP), and the irrepressible Winston McKenzie, our Commonwealth Spokesman, who is black. And former Labour activist Natasha Bolter.
Many of our spokesmen were drawn from the ranks of the 24 UKIP MEPs which I am proud to lead (remember — the largest UK delegation in Brussels, ahead of Tories and Labour, and twenty-four times the Lib-Dem strength!). Although of course I know them all, I have never before had the opportunity to sit and see them each make a political presentation one after the other, and I have to say I was impressed — as were the audience. I even started to worry that my own speech on energy would not stack up to the others’ standard. But it seemed to be well received.
So by lunch-time on Saturday, spirits were high, and the mood was positive. Nigel arrived at 2:30 and started by presenting some recent polling data from marginal seats, which were just astonishingly good. But at 2:40, he said “That’s me done. Nothing more to say. You can go and have a cup of tea if you want. Or you could stay and listen to my next guest”. We all realised that something important was in the offing. “It’s a Conservative MP”.
Then Mark Reckless walked on to the stage, to a tumultuous and ecstatic reception. Stepping up to the rostrum, he started out with exactly the words that Douglas Carswell had used a few weeks before “Today, I am leaving the Conservative Party”. Huge burst of applause — and when it died down, he added “And joining UKIP”. He made a speech which received repeated standing ovations, until we realised we were standing up so often, we might as well stay up. So we did.
And when he’d finished, the reaction was almost beyond description. As the BBC put it, “It was like a football club which had just won the Cup”. You’ve heard the old metaphor about people “dancing in the aisles”. Well in Doncaster they really were. At least a dozen people, mostly women but a couple of chaps too, spontaneously dancing between the seats and the podium. Unbelievable scenes. A day to remember for a life-time.
Now comes the hard part: we have to ensure that our two new recruits are re-elected in the up-coming by-elections. Let’s go to work.