They’ve been dubbed “Glastonbury for weirdos”. Yes, political party conference season is under way. Every autumn, MPs decamp from Westminster to thrash out policy, press the flesh with the party faithful, set the media agenda and impress voters. Happily for us onlookers, that noble mission doesn’t always go to plan.
Ahead of this year’s Conservative and Labour gatherings, we rewind the most cringe-inducing flops, fails and faux pas from previous years. Please give an overlong ovation to the conference moments that made headlines for the wrong reasons…
1. Neil Kinnock’s red tide (Brighton, 1983)
From old Foot to wet feet. After Michael Foot’s landslide election defeat, Welsh firebrand Kinnock was elected Labour leader and was keen to regain ground. His attempt to present a united front ended in humiliation when he took a stroll along Brighton beach for the photographers, joking that they’d get a shot of him walking on water. Hand-in-hand with wife Glenys, he was caught unawares by an onrushing wave and ended up in an undignified heap on the shingle. His soggy-shoed stumble was immortalised in the opening titles of Spitting Image. Kinnock’s image arguably never recovered.
2. Theresa May’s spluttering speech (Manchester, 2017)
Quick, pass her some Strepsils and Blu Tack. Struggling with Brexit negotiations, PM Theresa May badly needed a successful leader’s speech. Instead, it was beset by disaster. First, she was handed a fake P45 by prankster Simon Brodkin, who claimed he was acting on the orders of Boris Johnson. May’s attempts at rousing oratory were derailed by a persistent coughing fit. In a cruel visual metaphor, the writing on the wall behind her fell apart. The slogan “Building a country that works for everyone” looked less convincing with several letters missing. As she mercifully finished, Amber Rudd was seen reminding Johnson to stand up and clap.
3. John Redwood’s lip-sync battle (Llangollen, 1993)
Well, he is more Vulcan than Welsh. As an unlikely secretary of state for Wales, the Tory MP for Wokingham found himself on stage as conference attendees sang the Welsh national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. Pretending he knew the words, Redwood unconvincingly mimed along, bopping his head from side-to-side, eyes darting around in panic. It sparked widespread ridicule, and local support for the Conservatives collapsed. Never mind, boyo.
4. Liz Truss’s cheesy sound bites (Birmingham, 2014)
Back when she was environment minister, Truss channelled her passion for homegrown produce into one of the stranger conference speeches of recent times. Punctuated by awkward gaps and unsettling stares down the camera, Truss said she wanted children to “grow up knowing the taste of a British apple”. She boasted about “opening up new pork markets” before delivering her coup de grâce: “We import two-thirds of our cheese.” After a dramatic pause, Truss declared: “That. Is. A. Disgrace.” Satirist Michael Spicer compared her to a “racist greengrocer”.
5. OAP terrorises New Labour (Brighton, 2005)
Who’s the wally here? When 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang heckled foreign secretary Jack Straw, burly security guards descended to forcibly eject him. Straw told delegates that we’d invaded Iraq “to help the elected Iraqi government build a secure, democratic and stable nation”. The veteran peace activist shouted “Nonsense!”. He was manhandled out of his seat, frogmarched out and detained by police under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Following outrage over the heavy-handed response, Wolfgang was readmitted the next day to a standing ovation and an apology.
6. Better latte than never (Manchester, 2019)
Did anyone spot this moment at the Conservative Party Conference?@BorisJohnson was handed a plastic coffee cup by an aide, before another aide immediately snatched it away.
"No disposable cups", she was heard saying. pic.twitter.com/i1nYZ5AFjF
— On Demand News (@ODN) October 1, 2019
It’s become a cliché that modern politics is like The Thick of It. This fleeting incident truly was. When an aide handed Boris Johnson a coffee between early-morning interviews, a second aide swiftly snatched it away, hissing: “No. Disposable. Cups!” The clip went viral and was interpreted as proof of warring factions within Downing Street. Johnson swiftly made light of it, tweeting, “I got my coffee in the end”, with a picture of him holding a non-disposable “Get Brexit done” mug.
7. David Owen’s noisy neighbours (Bradford, 1981)
At the newly formed Social Democratic Party’s inaugural conference, the breakaway centrists were keen to set out their bold new alternative vision. Unfortunately, David Owen’s efforts to deliver his keynote speech as a member of the founding Gang of Four were drowned out by the strains of It’s my Party and I’ll Cry if I Want to – a chart-topping single for Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin at the time – drifting into the conference hall from the adjoining suite. Well, it could have been worse. At least it wasn’t Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face or The Land of Make Believe by Bucks Fizz, which were also ubiquitous hits that season.
8. Tony Blair gets hot under the collar (Brighton, 2000)
The sweat patches that prompted a heated debate. During his speech, dark areas began to appear around Tony Blair’s tie. By the time he raised his arms in triumph at the end of his 56-minute address, his pale blue shirt was visibly soaked in sweat. The audience winced as he gave wife Cherie a damp hug. Spin doctors sprang into action, claiming it was hot inside the conference centre and their leader didn’t perspire under pressure. Talk about the pits.
9. Baywatch: UKIP Edition (Margate, 2015)
Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside. During UKIP’s spring conference, press officer Gawain Towler had to rescue a wannabe MP from the sea. Sam Gould, prospective parliamentary candidate for Caerphilly, curried favour with leader Nigel Farage by leaping onto the beach and writing “We love Nige” in the sand. He was so preoccupied with his task that he didn’t notice the tide coming in. Towler leant through the railings to heroically haul the stranded Gould to safety. Their motto was “People not politics”, after all.
10. Prescott’s coiffure furore (Bournemouth, 1999)
Deputy PM John Prescott wasn’t just nicknamed “Two Jags”, he notoriously used one of them to protect his wife’s hairdo. Pauline’s trademark brunette bouffant was protected from the sea breeze by a ministerial motor ferrying her 200 yards from hotel to delegates’ hall. “The wife doesn’t like to get her hair blown about,” Prescott snapped when asked about such profligacy. Tabloid reporters promptly donned Pauline-style wigs to road test the wind damage. Because she’s worth it.
11. Strictly come robo-dancing (Birmingham, 2018)
Determined to bounce back from the previous year’s spluttering embarrassment, Theresa May took a more upbeat approach to her keynote speech. As Abba’s Dancing Queen played, she grooved her way towards the podium. Her stiff moves went viral and acquired their own nickname: “The Maybot”. It secured May’s status as queen of the conference gaffes, although she won points for her self-deprecating opening line: “You’ll have to excuse me if I cough during the speech. I’ve been up all night supergluing the backdrop.”