The annual Treasurers' Lunch at Party Conference is a wonder to behold. It is a far more eclectic gathering than one might at first expect; invitees come from those Associations which have paid their quota/per member fee in full. This includes small Associations with 80 members who must raise £400 and the relative giants in the West Kent Group who have to find £4000. In fairness, it's probably much harder for a small Labour heartland seat to find £400 than it is for Tunbridge Wells to find £4k.
The seating is informal; tables of eight without a seating plan. This can be dangerous. Two hours stuck next to a yapping bore who drones on about the last meeting of the Policy Forum is no fun. Ideally you spot some people whose company you like, then elbow your way onto their table. This year we were late and all the best seats were taken, so we took pot luck and opened a new table and waited to see who joined us.
First up were two larger-than-life and slightly effete blokes from Manchester who could have made a fortune doing an Ida and Ada Tribute Act. Next along was a county lady from the West Country who described herself as "The Mother of the Member of Parliament for (constituency)". I don't think she ever told us her name. After the initial introductions Ida and Ada opened the table chat. "Eh, do you have dogging down south?" I tried to hide my smile though I suspect I ended-up looking like the Dowager Lady Grantham. "Oh, do you mean like fox hounds and beagles? We have a local beagle pack." said the Mother of MP. "No. Doggin'. As in having sex in car parks! It's all the rage up north." Who'd like a top up? I asked.
As my Chairman entertained the "Mother of MP" with tales of country pursuits I engaged with Ida and Ada. "I've got a right proper hangover." Why, what were you doing last night? I asked, nervously. "I got pissed as a fart at the North West Area do. Do you have a party for the South East?" I told him that we did, but I seldom went as it was far too crowded and it usually clashed with another event.
He told me that the North West Party was the place do be. Apparently "it brought together every northern social stereotype imaginable....fag hags, Vera Duckworths and Lilly Savages." There is free-flowing Lambrusco and a disco. Look at this...." At this point he started to roll up his trouser leg to show me a bruise. "Did you get that dogging?" asked the Mother of MP. "No, I was pissed on Lambrusco and I fell off the stage dancing the Agadoo and landed on a table of prawn vol-au-vents."
I looked up to see Gerry Yates heading towards our table and all I could think of is how he would react if he was asked if he'd ever been dogging. Or if he'd ever fallen off a stage dancing the Agadoo. But I was saved by a very posh lady appearing at my shoulder.
"Hello, I'm the Prime Minister's Press Secretary and this lady is a feature writer from the Times. She's writing a piece about how Party members feel about Theresa May. Would you like to say a few words?" "Yes of course. I was Andrea Leadsom's Campaign Manager...." The journalist perked up thinking Christmas had come early. The Press Secretary turned pallid. "But do you know what.... with the benefit of hindsight, I think we have done very well. Theresa May is wonderful and I cannot think of anyone from my wing of the party who would find fault in what she has done so far. On grammar schools, Brexit, equality of opportunity.... spot on. I'm delighted....." The journalist looked crestfallen, the Press Officer looked bloody relieved.
I turned back to my now cold ratatouille and sweet potato mash just in time to hear "Mother of MP" announce, "the trouble with her is she's all ermine and no knickers." To my right the man from Manchester was refilling his glass. "Do you ever wonder what Jacqui Foster keeps in her handbag? D'ya know, if anyone lit up a ciggie I suspect she'd combust due to the fumes off all the hair spray. And have you seen how much they charge for poppers down here..... twice the price as Canal Street."
The three lessons I learned from the 2016 Treasurers' Lunch are as follows:
1. The sponsors and the Party Treasurer who host the lunch are incredibly generous
2. Sitting with strangers can be much more fun than always sitting with people you know
3. Next year I must buy a ticket for the North West Area do.