Party conference season is the most pointless waste of money, time and liver quality ever devised. I attended these sweaty, drunken gatherings for ten years during my newspaper-editor days and achieved nothing constructive other than clarity over which is the best way to treat a monstrous hangover. (Answer: my late grandmother’s recipe of vine tomatoes on toast, laden with thick Marmite and gargantuan grinds from a pepper mill.) But they were fun, so long as I adhered to the golden rule: always leave the bar before 2 a.m., thus avoiding the moment when enough alcohol emboldens other delegates, and indeed one’s own staff, to tell you what they really think of you.
Politicians use their conferences to plot, scheme, shore up support and remind us all that they’re a bunch of self-interested charlatans. I recall dinner with newly appointed home secretary Jack Straw during the 1997 Brighton gathering, where I asked what he would do about Moors murderer Myra Hindley, whose parole was being considered. ‘Officially, I fully intend to afford her the same rights as any other prisoner in Britain,’ he replied. Then he smirked like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. ‘Unofficially, if you think I’m going down as the home secretary who released Myra Hindley, then you must be fucking joking!’
The dreaded conference hall, devoid of functional air-conditioning and featuring an interminable roster of dreary speakers, is best avoided. I had far more entertainment off-piste. There was the annual Daily Mirror lunch with the Blairs, where Cherie’s behaviour towards me depended on how she viewed my conduct in the preceding year. She was friendliest just after I’d declined to publish topless paparazzi photos of her on a beach. ‘My heroic knight in shining armour!’ she gushed when we sat down. She was least friendly after I’d successfully campaigned against a whacking pay rise for her husband and his cabinet. ‘We have bills to pay!’ she said. ‘Here,’ I retorted, chucking a £20 note across the table, ‘get the kids something nice for Christmas.’
Then there was the night I persuaded Boy George to reform Culture Club for a party in Bournemouth, and watched Peter Mandelson grooving to ‘Karma Chameleon’ like a Walking Dead zombie poked with a cattle prod. My favourite conference memory, though, involves a dinner with Christopher Hitchens in Blackpool which concluded with him announcing he was going to jump up in the middle of Bill Clinton’s speech the next day and declare: ‘I am Christopher Hitchens from the Daily Mirror and for bombing Iraq to distract attention from your affair with Monica Lewinsky, I hereby accuse you of war crimes!’ He was deadly serious. Fortunately, or perhaps not, I sobered up enough by the morning to dissuade him.
Jeremy Corbyn and I have much in common. We both went to prep school, grew up in a sumptuous country home, had disappointing A-level results, support Arsenal and opposed the Iraq war. Oh, and he has brother called Piers (I have one called Jeremy). Yet his ascension to power in the Labour party is only marginally less ludicrous than if I were the newly elected leader. This is a guy we deemed too much of a nutty, left-wing extremist to feature in the pages of the Mirror. Dwell on that bombshell as you munch on your lentils, comrades.
The explanation for Corbyn’s rise is not dissimilar to that of my friend Donald Trump in the American presidential race. Both men have capitalised on boredom and irritation with the political class. They attack opponents and colleagues with equal gusto, and seem to relish all the opprobrium that rains down on their head. The Donald rang me last week. ‘Can you believe this, Piers?’ he chuckled, referring to his soaring poll numbers. Well yes, I can actually. Just as I can understand why Corbyn is where he is, even if I find it preposterous. There’s a refreshing authenticity about Trump and Corbyn, which is appealing regardless of whether you agree with them. ‘See you at the White House!’ cried Trump when he hung up. I wouldn’t bet against it.
Katie Hopkins is my new bedfellow. Not a discovery that instantly warms the cockles of one’s heart, never mind any other organ. She has defected from the Sun to Mail Online, the world’s most popular English-speaking newspaper website, for whom I am the US editor-at-large. Ms Hopkins’s column flames with invective from the ‘migrants are cockroaches’ school. Yet when you meet her in the flesh, she’s an altogether less displeasing creature; warm and amusing… cuddly, almost. I can relate to this vast disparity between public profile and private persona. We’re both massively misunderstood human beings.
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