Anthony Hilton: Ministers put in a spin by the fringe

I had forgotten how damaging it is to your health to attend all three main party conferences.

Anthony Hilton: Ministers put in a spin by the fringe
Anthony Hilton: Ministers put in a spin by the fringe

It is not the enlarged liver that is the problem - conferences are significantly less late-night and drunken than they used to be when they were held in the seaside towns.

It helped that in those days the media were less intrusive and prurient, so those who did celebrate too well could do so comfortable in the expectation that their excesses would not be the stuff of tomorrow's newspapers or a clip on YouTube.

The excess now is the intensity of the lobbying. There are hundreds of fringe meetings run not only by every possible think-tank, trade association and pressure group, but also subtly by companies. One Liberal Democrat peer said he had never known of fringe meetings on saving at a party conference, but this year there were dozens. Behind most of them were insurance companies and other financial groups.

The Liberal Democrat programme for fringe meetings was bigger than its guide to the conference.

It was still a lot smaller than the Conservative book of listings, but bigger than Labour's. That is what happens when you lose power and don't look like regaining it for a while. The Liberal Democrat fringe in contrast must be four times the size of two years ago. Suddenly, its politicians, and certainly the ministers among them, have become worth talking to.

But that is surely also where it breaks down and becomes a frightening waste of money. The theory is you organise a meeting and invite a minister to sit on the panel alongside your own experts.

What actually happens, is that the politicians double or triple book themselves, which means they can only attend any one session for 15 minutes - enough for them to make their contribution, take a few questions and then rush off to their next engagement.

I sat next to the same minister three times in one and a half days - it was only on the third occasion that he realised he had met me before. That was just after he realised he had muddled the order of his speeches and given the wrong one.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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