There’s something medieval about the physical geography of Conservative Party conference. The King takes his court and their caravan out into the country and sets up the tents and pavilions, with fluttering banners, to receive the petitions, pledges and praise of lesser noblemen and the occasional commoner. It all feels a bit like this.
This scene is only somewhat metaphorical. The ‘secure area’ or ‘island site’ is a steel barrier guarded by armed police, with airport security-style entrances, encompassing the main conference centre, the top conference hotel, and the terraces and spaces in-between. Inside this area, the grounds are scattered with tents and marquees and hanging banners, which make up discrete areas and ‘lounges’. Rival groups use money and favour to get their tents closer to important people and more prominent in the centres of power.
So while political journalists rightly try to work out who has influence on politics behind closed doors, a lot of it is laid out before our eyes. It’s a geography of power. You need a pass to get beyond security and into the conference. But once in the hall, there is another doorway, guarded by its own security guard, which needs another, higher-level pass for access.
This is the ‘Lloyds parliamentary lounge’, so-called because Lloyds Bank pay for a special VIP area, open only to Conservative ministers, MPs and other top Tories, behind a branded doorway. It’s a VIP area in the Tory club. There isn’t really anything that special or luxurious behind the door – just some free coffee, comfortable chairs and a place to recharge your phone.
But it has two advantages: for the top Tories, it provides somewhere they can rest separately from the lower-tier Tories. A site, perhaps, where they don’t have to talk about ‘levelling up’ for half an hour. For Lloyds, it’s a captive audience for their staff to meet the political elite. They have, in the most direct way, bought access to the governing party.
There are other lounges. The ‘iNHouse lounge’ sits in a large marquee, offering ‘an exclusive meeting space’ for ‘Cabinet minsiters, lobby journalists’ and ‘senior corporate executives.’ It’s not as exclusive as the Lloyds lounge, but offers another tier inside the conference. It is run by iNHouse Communications, the lobbying firm set up by a number of Boris Johnson’s political campaign team.
iNHouse have been running this lounge since 2012 and it is a clever way of getting their clients into the centre of the party conferences. This year, the lounge is paid for by BT Openreach, the publicly subsidised internet giant that Corbyn threatened to nationalise, as well as Diageo, the drinks firm behind Johnny Walker whiskey and Smirnoff vodka. Google are funding its free coffee for top Tories.
Rival lobbyists PLMR have set up their ‘business hub’ in imitation of the ‘London lounge’. As well as giving clients somewhere to meet political insiders, this ‘business hub’ hosts events where corporations can put their arguments to the Tory party. For example, low-paying catering giant Compass is scheduled to hold a meeting on how the hospitality industry can help with ‘levelling up’, with Tory MP John Stevenson – chair of the All Party Food and Drink Group of MPs – on the panel. It seems unlikely they will consider the obvious answer: increasing wages in catering.
If running a marquee is too much, corporations can just pay for a few meetings. Their executives will sit on the panel next to ministers and MPs, all for the cost of the snacks and hall. Energy giant Drax has been trying to persuade the world their massive wood pellet burning power station is green. It’s arguable, depending on whether the wood pellets are genuinely sustainable. And, it seems, the easiest way to get the argument across is buy everyone a drink.
Drax paid for a lunchtime meeting inside the conference organised by the Spectator. Delegates were given as many glasses of gin and tonic as they wanted – the scene was something like Hogarth’s famous cartoon ‘election entertainment’, showing eighteenth century Whigs holding a boozed up banquet to win over voters. Accordingly, Drax got its executive onto the panel next to Tory MP Bim Afolami and high-profile mayor Ben Houchen.
The Tory Party conference timetable has pages of these meetings running from 8am to 8pm: breakfast panels, lunchtime meetings, evening receptions, with heavy doses of corporate sponsorship – funding the rooms, the orange juice and rolls, the buffet lunches or wine and canapés. Of course, the money impacts the debate. To take just one example among hundreds, the Tory website ConservativeHome also runs a marquee. ConservativeHome is run by Tory billionaire Lord Ashcroft, but its events also rely on other corporate funding.
I went to their meeting on how to ‘build back better’ and ‘revitalise’ cities. Urban renewal debates often focus on helping smaller high street businesses thrive or giving power to local communities, but not here. The meeting was funded by property development giant Land Securities, who own vast London office blocks and shopping centres. Unsurprisingly, Land Securities boss Chris Hogwood spoke from the platform next to Housing Minister Neil O’Brien.
Hogwood complained that ‘no political party nationally has gripped how we restart our cities’. His corporation wants the government to drive the office workers and shoppers back into the centre of cities into their properties, not to try to use the pandemic to rebalance urban living away form the centres dominated by these firms.
Hogwood also wanted the government to look at the high cost of housing and poor ‘quality of life’ that makes people want to leave urban centres. But to do that, the government would probably need to collect taxes from the super-rich to put a downward pressure on property speculation. The trouble is, Land Securities doesn’t like paying that tax. In 2013, UK tax authorities finally won a long running battle to stop the corporate giant avoiding around £60 million in tax by funnelling its property deals through the Cayman islands.
The Conservative Party itself is a big and complicated beast that persuades the well-off or ambitious to work for the super rich. It’s got many overlapping political currents and a huge cast of characters, which journalists pick over, prod or promote.
There is, however, also a simple set of power relations which is laid out before everyone inside the conference zone’s eyes; a straightforward topography of power. This gets treated as normal and often simply isn’t reported. But if you look closely enough, you’ll see quite a lot about how British politics works – and who it works for.