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The Conservatives’ annual conference should have been a way for the party to take the temperature of its members, thank activists for their work and, this year especially, to revel in their electoral success.

Or it would have been, had the pandemic not robbed them of the chance to meet in person and dramatically altered the mood less than year on from an emphatic election victory.

Moving it all online had not only a political cost to the Tories though – it came at a massive financial cost too – as the events, which alternate between Manchester and Birmingham, are a huge source of revenue.

In an attempt to fill the large hole in their coffers – the party made around £5million from the 2018 event – they set up a digital “exhibition hall” where “virtual stalls” could be purchased for up to £25,500 plus VAT.

Lobbyists could pay £7,400 for a “policy roundtable” over Zoom, or get the use of a studio for £40,000 to host fringe events over the four days.

But all did not seem to go as planned. One MP complained that it was “plagued with technical problems”, and at one event he and others were speaking to no one, as the audience were locked out.

And PoliticsHome understands that one think tank has even asked for a refund, complaining the pricey private roundtables with ministers “didn’t work at all”. In response the party declined to comment.

The Tories Virtual Conference Does Not Appear To Have Been

On the opening day social media was awash with complaints about being unable to log in, and the problems were so bad conferencer services sent out an email reading: “Dear exhibitor, we are currently having some technical issues therefore you may not experience the full functionality of the stand or the platform at the moment. 

“We are working extremely hard on getting that back up and running as soon as possible.”

The issues didn’t stop there. The BBC’s television feed dropped out midway-through Rishi Sunak’s speech on Monday, just as he was about to heap praise on the Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson’s autocue failed during his address the following day.

That said, it’s not like live conference speeches have always gone to plan, as anyone who was in Manchester for Theresa May’s disaster in 2017 will attest. 

And not every fringe event was a failure; one in support of a malaria charity on Monday was well-attended by a highly-engaged audience. But that did have the benefit of being sponsored by Fever Tree, meaning those invited were sent a parcel full of gin and tonics beforehand.

Gabe Winn, founder and CEO of consultants The Blakeney Group who put on the event, said they had designed it to “counter Zoom fatigue”, and make it more interactive.

“A lot of fringe discussions were like a Teams call, just with ever so slightly more famous people,” he told PoliticsHome.

“That doesn’t work; your attention span is much shorter online, there’s more distractions, and you’re likely to be ironing/eating/typing/changing a nappy whilst half-listening in.”

One of the MPs who took part, former minister Tim Loughton, said the gin tasting was “actually the one fringe meeting which went without a hitch”.

He added the fringe events he attended “were all plagued with technical problems”, and that experience was echoed by his colleagues.

“My first fringe meeting we had to wait over 10 minutes for the panel to be let in and then after five minutes we were all cut off and eventually had to be sent a new link meaning we started again almost half an hour later, meaning it was a rather curtailed event”, he said.

“It was also quite disconcerting not being able to see how many or who was Zooming in and it turned out in the first part of my first meeting we had just been talking to ourselves and there was no audience able to tune in.”

1602447761 329 The Tories Virtual Conference Does Not Appear To Have Been

For Tory activist Jackson Ng it was “a real loss for our members not being able to mingle, socialise and debate in person”.

He said: “I participated in a few fringes and listened to a few speeches but of course, it is not the same as being in a room full of like-minded activists.”

As for the PM’s performance, the former parliamentary candidate and local constituency chairman added: “I thought Boris’s speech felt more like an address to the nation, focusing more on his vision for a post covid Britain but also redefining what the Conservative Party now stands for.

“It was a robust performance which I was impressed by, as always with Boris. Although as a practising barrister, I think he should have put the point he made about human rights lawyers into better context.”

The Ipswich MP Tom Hunt was more impressed, saying it was right for Johnson to set out “broad visions for the future”, and despite it being hard to generate much excitement for a virtual speech, it “hit the mark”.

Having been elected in December, it would have been his first conference as a member of Parliament, having attended every year since 2011. He said that “would have been an interesting experience”, however he understood this was “what was needed for now”.

But on the bright side he added: “I guess I’ve saved my liver slightly.”

The PM said in his address: “we will ensure that next time we meet it will be face to face and cheek by jowl”, something most MPs and activists are looking forward too as well.

But not everyone is missing the warm white wine in a stuffy conference centre, one long-suffering Spad joking after this year’s virtual proceedings: “I’d be perfectly happy never to go back to conference ever again.”

For now the party is claiming the online version was a success, touting the fact 22,000 members registered for the event and “over 16,000 unique visitors” visited the website.

The Tories added some main hall events had 6,000 members watching through the virtual conference portal alone, whereas only around 1,000 people would be packed into the actual halls.

The party co-chair Amanda Milling said: “I’m delighted that over our Virtual Conference we were able to welcome more members than ever before, with members able to ask hundreds of questions directly to Ministers, and the fringe continuing to thrive as well.”

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Murkowski to back Barrett for Supreme Court, despite opposing GOP process

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski will vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, despite her opposition to moving forward in an election year.

The Alaska Republican said Saturday she will split her votes on Barrett. She will vote against a procedural hurdle on Sunday to advance her nomination over a filibuster, due to her longstanding objection to confirming a justice so close to the Nov. 3 presidential election.

But based on the merits of Barrett’s credentials for the job, she’s a ‘yes.’

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Tension Has Escalated Between Tory MPs And Marcus Rashford Ahead Of A Vote On Free School Meals

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Tories must face up to their “conscience” today on a vote on extending free school meals over the holidays, Labour has claimed, as footballer and anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford ramped up the pressure on politicians to back it.

The challenge from shadow children’s minister Tulip Siddiq came after another difficult morning for the government as Manchester United star Rashford said he was “paying close attention” to the vote and then got into a Twitter spat with Tory MP Steve Baker over who has the power to introduce the free meals.

Moments later Tory backbencher Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot in Devon, broke ranks to say she would be supporting Labour’s motion on extending the free school meals until next Easter. Education select committee chair Conservavtive Robert Halfon has urged the government to work with Rashford.

When asked at Prime Minister’s Questions to back the proposal by Labour, Boris Johnson said the government wanted to use the benefits system to support children in the hoildays.

“I want to make sure we continue to support families thoughout the crisis so they have the cash available to feed their kids as they need to do,” he said. 

Earlier this week government minister Nadhim Zahawi has said that struggling families can claim Universal Credit and that many parents do not like being labelled as being on ‘free school meals’ instead preferring to pay a modest sum of money to a holiday club to provide food.

Siddiq told PoliticsHome: “A lot of the Tories, Don Valley, Bishop Aukland and places like that they’re all a little bit worried. It’s the kind of thing that can be used against them in their patches.

“Even if they don’t walk through the lobbies with us tonight that they put a lot of pressure on the prime minister. And that’s how it happened last time.

“I know it’s not easy to break the whip but some votes are a matter of conscience and this is one of them.

“We’re going to be facing the toughest winter of a generation, there’s coronavirus, the end of the furlough scheme – children are in for a tough ride. Why can’t we just do one last thing for parents so they don’t have to worry?”

She said some Tories she had spoken to directly in Parliament on Tuesday were sympathetic to the issue but they did not want to break the whip.

The vouchers were introduced for the poorest families in August after significant pressure from Rashford. The England striker said today that the situation for children is now worse than in the summer.

The vote at 7pm is on a Labour motion calling on the government to continue directly funding free school meals over the holidays until Easter 2021. They say it would prevent a million children going hungry.

Rashford tweeted that he was paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to “turn a blind eye” to the needs of our most vulnerable children.

He wrote: “2.2M of them who currently qualify for Free School Meals. 42% newly registered. Not to mention the 1.5M children who currently don’t qualify.”

He then got into an disagreement with MP Steve Baker who said Rashford was the one with all the power to make the change on free school meals because he has more Twitter followers that he does, despite Baker being a politician for the ruling Conservative party.

Baker said instead Universal Credit could be boosted to try and help families..

Morris, who was elected in 2010 said that she would vote against her own party tonight because of the economic fall out for people in her constituency.

She tweeted: “The ongoing pandemic has had a heavy impact on many across Teignbridge, bringing with it significant economic difficulties for many. This is why I am supporting the motion calling for the continuation of direct funding for FSM over school holidays until Easter 2021.

“This time-limited measure is a perfectly sensible response as we deal with the economic consequences of Covid-19. Longer-term I believe it is right that those eligible should be supported through the Holidays & Activities Food Programme and the Universal Credit system.”

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Trump comment on ‘blowing up’ Nile Dam angers Ethiopia

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image copyrightReuters

image captionThe dam will be the biggest hydro-electric project in Africa

Ethiopia’s prime minister has said his country “will not cave in to aggressions of any kind” after President Donald Trump suggested Egypt could destroy a controversial Nile dam.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is at the centre of a long-running dispute involving Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

Mr Trump said Egypt would not be able to live with the dam and might “blow up” the construction.

Ethiopia sees the US as siding with Egypt in the dispute.

The US announced in September that it would cut some aid to Ethiopia after it began filling the reservoir behind the dam in July.

Why is the dam disputed?

Egypt relies for the bulk of its water needs on the Nile and is concerned supplies could be cut off and its economy undermined as Ethiopia takes control of the flow of Africa’s longest river.

Once complete, the $4bn (£3bn) structure on the Blue Nile in western Ethiopia will be Africa’s largest hydro-electric project.

The speed with which Ethiopia fills up the dam will govern how severely Egypt is affected – the slower the better as far as Cairo is concerned. That process is expected to take several years.

  • Who owns the River Nile – and why it matters

  • Egypt fumes as Ethiopia celebrates over Nile dam
  • How the Nile’s mega dam will be filled

Sudan, further upstream than Egypt, is also concerned about water shortages.

Ethiopia, which announced the start of construction in 2011, says it needs the dam for its economic development.

Negotiations between the three countries were being chaired by the US, but are now overseen by the African Union.

What did the Ethiopian PM say?

PM Abiy Ahmed did not address Mr Trump’s remarks directly, but there appears to be little doubt what prompted his robust comments.

Ethiopians would finish the dam, he vowed.

“Ethiopia will not cave in to aggression of any kind,” he said. “Ethiopians have never kneeled to obey their enemies, but to respect their friends. We won’t do it today and in the future.”

Threats of any kind over the issue were “misguided, unproductive and clear violations of international law”.

image copyrightReuters
image captionSudan is worried too – the Blue and White Niles meet in Khartoum

Why did Trump get involved?

The president was on the phone to Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu in front of reporters at the White House on Friday.

The occasion was Israel and Sudan’s decision to agree diplomatic relations in a move choreographed by the US.

The subject of the dam came up and Mr Trump and Mr Hamdok expressed hopes for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

But Mr Trump also said “it’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way”.

He continued: “And I said it and I say it loud and clear – they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.”

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe dam came up in a phone call with Sudan’s prime minister

What is the state of the negotiations?

Mr Abiy maintains that the negotiations have made more progress since the African Union began mediation.

But there are fears that Ethiopia’s decision to start filling the reservoir could overshadow hopes of resolving key areas, such what happens during a drought and how to resolve future disputes.

Related Topics

  • Nile

  • Sudan
  • Donald Trump
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia

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