The most bizarre moment for me of this year’s Conservative Party conference was when a senior figure from Number 10 dropped by the small LGB Alliance stand in the exhibition hall to offer support – but also to ask whether they planned to protest outside the LGBT+ Conservatives reception that evening at which the Prime Minister’s wife was giving a speech?
Given the event was within the secure zone, and only the three founders of LGB Alliance were physically present within the conference centre, that seemed an unlikely prospect. Also given I had on many occasions had to offer a seat to some of the founders to rest their legs during the week whilst they talked to MPs, peers and Tory members, the idea that they were about to wave placards and charge in front of Carrie as she entered the Midland Hotel’s tea room was frankly ridiculous.
I suspect it was the miserable efforts of just one or two party members involved with the Stonewall-sponsored event, to try and create conflict between the long-standing LGBT+ Conservatives group and the fledgling – almost exactly two-year-old – LGB Alliance, now a registered charity. Its charitable status is facing legal challenge from puberty blocking support group Mermaids, but this week as conference showed the Alliance and its founders are the grown-ups in the room.
It was a successful week for the LGB Alliance’s team, and it probably even surprised them at how well it went. The roll call of MPs and peers who came to the sex-based campaigning group’s stand to talk through the issues was impressive: Damian Green, Jackie Doyle-Price, Iain Duncan Smith, Baroness Jenkin, Lord Lucas, Scott Benton, Bernard Jenkin, Flick Drummond, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Rob Butler, Mark Jenkinson, Baroness Nicholson, as well as the independent peer Claire Fox and Conservative PCC Lisa Townsend.
One recently promoted minister did refuse to even meet the LGB Alliance founders even though the group’s concerns are included in that minister’s portfolio, but most MPs who came by were very interested and willing to hear the arguments. One senior cabinet minister, and long term supporter of Boris Johnson, gave strong backing to the group’s aims, although was unable to do so publicly.
And there were other MPs in government jobs who were limited in what they could be seen to say, but were privately very supportive of the LGB Alliance’s presence at conference. Many made comparisons with Labour’s conference, where the party had refused the Alliance a stand and then managed to get itself into one almighty mess about women’s bodies.
There was genuine communication and the beginnings of discussion between individual members of LGBT+ Conservatives and the LGB Alliance team including its chair Eileen Gallagher, and founders Bev Jackson, Kate Harris and Malcolm Clark. Visits occurred through the day on Monday between the two stands, positioned in clear eyesight of each other, with just the Sky News studio in between.
Although ITV News and The Guardian were intent on stoking a row, it was total peace between the two stalls. In fact Paula Wren, a transwoman party member and member of LGBT+ Conservatives had no problem coming over a few times to the LGB Alliance stand to chat. There were bizarre comments by one LGBT+ Conservatives member who told me they were convinced that Christian churches in America were funding the group, but mostly there was real and genuine contact through the week between members of the two campaign groups and plans for a meeting were discussed.
Jackson and Clark were interviewed separately by GB News, in Clark’s case by gay author, stand-up comedian and great defender of free speech Andrew Doyle. Staff on the BBC stand declined to engage with LGB Alliance with one BBC employee saying some of their colleagues didn’t want any coverage given to the LGB Alliance. I suppose equally LGB Alliance supporters might not want to pay their licence fee.
The team attended a fringe organised by Baroness Nicholson with author Helen Joyce, a breakfast event with the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner Lisa Townsend, Fair Play for Women and Keep Prisons Single Sex plus a debate on freedom of speech with Andrew Doyle and Julia Hartley-Brewer. They couldn’t be missed in the audience with their LGB Alliance beanie hats, caps and T-shirts. The Conservative Party had allowed debate. As a party spokesperson said: “We host a wide range of groups that may have differing opinions on complex issues.”
With Carrie Johnson’s speech already a sell-out and with journalists queuing up in the afternoon to get inside the packed event, there seemed little point in trying to be there in person. You can watch Boris’s wife’s speech here: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/watch-carrie-s-speech-on-gay-rights. I had been told it would be uncontroversial, and in some ways it was. Johnson didn’t directly mention the word trans – it was all “LGBT” and about her and Boris being “allies”. The message being the Tories are no longer the party of Section 28 – not that anyone really thought it was since David Cameron’s same sex marriage legislation 8 years ago. That isn’t what the debate in 2021 is about.
Maybe next year the LGB Alliance can hold a fringe event themselves at conference and party members, MPs and peers who back the group can come together in a room for a glass of wine, speeches and to debate the issues. That would be a first for any UK political party, and women voters and LGB voters who believe in sex-based rights and protections will be cheering.
David Bridle is the founder of Lesbian and Gay News.