OUR coverage of the Conservative conference in Manchester this year has been a bit of a Bucknell-rama but it’s interesting if you talk to him about the value he puts on this annual week away. He doesn’t want to waste a minute. He scans the directory of meetings to make sure he’s always at something, asks a question in nearly every session he goes to and sees it as a rare chance for local foot soldiers like councillors to engage with an almost full slate of ministers. Watching him do this, you quickly realise he is happy to fly ideas across a room of delegates without any fear of ridicule, and he won’t blush if he receives a cutting answer in return. On Monday evening at a drinks reception hosted by surveyors, he told a nonplussed Brandon Lewis that the government didn’t actually need to build more homes, rather it should control the country’s population and deal with supply. The room laughed at him as Lewis, a little meanly, replied that he didn’t believe in the Chinese method of controlling numbers.
But it was earlier in the day that he drew more quizzical looks, and not just for his decision to go out to the barriers and speak to masked protesters about why they despise Iain Duncan Smith so much. No, he drew more confused shakes of the head in a fringe meeting on high speed rail, when not for the first time, he suggested that the rise of Skype video-conferencing would reduce the need for the HS2 north-south line. He did declare an interest to transport minister Claire Perry, outing himself as the person he said hates HS2 more than any other breathing soul and that Euston would be doomed by the scheme to become an ‘elephant’s graveyard’, whatever that is. But it was the Skype talk which provoked the titters this time. Look at the video at the top, and not just the table of refreshments which has been razed as if diced steak tossed to a tank of piranhas.
Here you will see at least one delegate, shaking his head repeatedly, laughing in surprise at the suggestion that Skype could kill Hs2 and at one point looking despairingly up at the ceiling. Some people might be put off by this gesture-heckling in front of them, but no, not Jonny, who thinks he has found a way to save the government £50 billion and, giggles or not, has pledged to raise the idea again (as long as he can find a ‘group Skype’ button). But then isn’t this what conference is meant to be about? You could say it’s admirably he hasn’t come all this way to sit on a sofa and gossip about who will follow Cameron, he’s come to shake his ideas tree at ministers in meetings.
Perry, nevertheless, was not in the mood to cancel a major infrastructure on JB’s advice, and instead went on a chatty riff about Kindles. “Jonny, the I feel we have had this conversation before,” she replied “When I left business school – it was my business school reunion this weekend and I missed it because it was my daughter’s first university trip – everybody said we’d be doing video-conferencing. And we never actually did. People are online more than ever, but they are travelling more than ever. I was interested today to read that Waterstones are to stop selling Kindles – I never bought one, I always thought they were crap because people actually quite like reading book.”
She went on: “You are right that there has been an acceleration, if you like, in communication but, look, every business I talk to that wants to relocate to the UK will tell you why transport links are so important. We’ve underestimated demand for train travel every single year, and it’s booming. As a Camden councillor it will be less comfort for you, but what I find fascinating, along the HS2, route is the level of excitement among those it is touching.”