And so, there I was for the beginning of Conference, having arrived a little early, and was talking to Annette Brooke, our MP for Dorset Mid and Poole North, who was due to open Conference. We chatted about how things were going and about what she was doing after Conference was over. I like Annette, and see her as one of the more unsung heroines. And yet she's a very sharp cookie indeed. To win the nomination to fight the seat was a challenge in itself, winning it was tough too, and yet she is still there.
Once the opening ceremony was done, it was time to go though, as the work of the First Husband is never done. Admittedly, my duties are rather less numerous this year, as I've been sacked as her minder - I really wasn't any good at it as I kept getting into conversations with people - and my replacements are fearfully good. So I visited the exhibition area, where I was waylaid by Colchester Lib Dems, who were selling chocolate. I had only intended to buy one bar, but made the mistake of handing over a fiver. So I ended up leaving with four bars, and a slightly emptier wallet. They're very good at selling things and I wouldn't want to be a Colchester Conservative...
The evening was occupied with the Rally, and a thank you to Chris Rennard, opened by Ros and compered by Sarah Teather, looking rather glamorous (no, she didn't pay me to write this). Admittedly, by the time she'd finished, she could write off any prospect of getting Christmas cards from Mark Oaten and Lembit Opik, amongst others, but she's got a future in standup comedy if the mood strikes her.
However, my evening had started earlier, after Ros had sent me a text asking if I could get some chocolate for her. As I texted back, funnily enough... And so I found myself in the green room prior to the rally. It's strange, in retrospect, but I've not exactly been conscious of how these things work. As a bureaucrat, I tend to assume that my job is to ensure that things can happen, and not take that much interest in what actually does.
In the green room, makeup is being applied, speakers are reading their speeches one last time, microphones are being fitted, and there is a general buzz of nervous energy. You do sort of assume that they've all done this a thousand times but, actually, it isn't like that at all. It's the little routines that make it easier and, when they don't happen, you can be put off of your stride. And so it was last night, as the expected quick walkthrough dematerialised. As I said to Nick (yes, that one) and Charles as I left them, "Don't worry, you've done this a hundred times. And the fact that you'll be performing on a specially greased revolving platform shouldn't put you off for a moment...". Charles's cheery "Bugger off!" echoing in my ears, I made my way to the First Husband's seat.
And wasn't Charles amazing? He was in fantastic form, a reminder of exactly why the Party voted him leader in the first place (yes, I know, I voted for David Rendel...). Funny, passionate and erudite, he was a tough act for Nick to follow. But Nick was up to the job, and showed all the skills I had counted on when I voted for him in 2007. It wasn't an easy choice, and he had his problems in the first year, but he has blossomed into the role.
It was, I think, a good way to start things off. The emotional sendoff for Chris Rennard was an occasion for genuine warmth and, whilst I have been on the wrong end of his political skills on the only occasion when it really mattered, even then I could find time to admire the skill with which my proposal was semi-thwarted. Sitting next to him as I was, I was struck by how much his reception meant to him, and how strongly felt was the idea that we owed him for the work he has done over so many years. As a Party, we're not always good at saying thank you, and we tend to take some people for granted, but regardless of how individuals think about Chris, his influence has been huge. After all, how many people get to have an 'ism' named after them?
The Rally having rather overrun, it was then a hectic dash to visit some of the receptions. I made it to the Exhibitors and Sponsors reception (good food), the East of England (good company) and the First Timers (and to think I was one once!), before heading back to the room for some well-deserved sleep...