If anyone offered this advice – ‘start as you mean to go on’ – to Diane James as she prepared to be announced as the new leader of UKIP, she certainly took it to heart. On Friday, 16th September, at 15.20, the revised agenda for the rest of Friday and for all of Saturday was being handed out as we queued for refreshments. As Diane pointed out at her Press Conference on that same afternoon, it was her prerogative to change the schedules, and she took full advantage of it.
From 16.00 to 16.45 the candidates who stood in the Leadership contest were originally scheduled to address Conference from the platform. This didn’t happen. Instead, the time slot was allocated to speeches by Tim Aker MEP and David Coburn MEP.
The five candidates who polled 2nd (Lisa Duffy), 3rd (Bill Etheridge), 4th (Philip Broughton) and 5th (Liz Jones) were shunted off to a Saturday lunchtime ‘Special Fringe Event to Meet the Leadership Candidates’. In the end this ‘Special Fringe Event’ didn’t happen either, because some candidates had gone home, and the rest probably thought it wasn’t worth the effort. It may have been a relief to the runners-up: after all, what can the losing candidates say except “I did my best” and “Congratulations, Diane”? Perhaps Diane realised this and was merciful, or perhaps she wanted Conference’s full attention and was ruthless; maybe it was a bit of both.
Saturday was a whole new ball game. I had to sit with my original programme and cross things out for at least 15 minutes before realising the implications of Diane’s changes. So, for a start, the speech by John Bickley, Party Treasurer: gone. His 10.00 slot was taken by Christopher Mills, Deputy Treasurer & Business Spokesman. Mills was due to speak later anyway, but John Bickley’s speech was not rescheduled.
The Recognition Awards were moved from 14.45 to 10.30 and renamed ‘Gold Medals’. This was sensible, because in previous years some award winners had gone for trains in the afternoon and missed their presentation. Diane handed out the medals and gave heartfelt thanks to the grassroots members who received them.
The most sensational change, which some members of the media tried to call ‘a purge’, was Neil Hamilton’s non-appearance on stage. The Welsh Assembly UKIP Leader’s 11.20 slot: gone, taken over by Nathan Gill, MEP and Welsh Assembly Member. Gill was not scheduled to speak at all on the original programme, so this switch spoke volumes!
The traditional Q & A panel session ‘where leaders from our elected chambers answer questions from audience members’ disappeared altogether, much to my relief, because it tends to be slow and predictable. Perhaps Diane thought the same.
An interesting time slot switch was Douglas Carswell’s, from 11.15 to 13.15. My personal view is that the extra time allowed Diane to have a chat with Carswell over lunch about his rehabilitation in the Party. She went out of her way to introduce him and made it clear that delegates should welcome and value him as our UKIP MP. Diane stood next to him during the applause before and after his conciliatory speech, all smiles and nods. She has work she wants Carswell to do in Parliament regarding Article 50 and the 1972 Communities Act, so it makes sense to take a positive attitude with our only MP (so far).
The Motions from Branches was shifted from 16.00 to 14.30, a very welcome move for those who like to participate in the voting, but often miss it because of the need to set off on long car journeys home, or to catch trains. In fact, the Saturday afternoon session ended much earlier than usual as a result of the restructuring and was all the better for that. The Closing Speech by Diane came at 15.30 instead of 17.00 and allowed time for an engaging member of Young Independence to speak, reminding us how much we need the younger generation to carry the flag.
I admire Diane for starting how she means to go on and taking firm charge of the Conference schedules. She sent plain messages of warning to some, showed strong support for others, and cleared out pointless or time-consuming irrelevancies. I’m pleased that I voted for her and believe she will be the Leader that the Party needs for success in the future.