"Manchester is open for business" say officials

The question on many people’s lips at the moment is, “what the bloody hell is going on?” This could refer to many things of course, but currently it is directed at the state of politics in general and even more specifically for Mancunians it means, “is the Conservative Party Conference actually happening?” 

Even if you have no interest in a huge political get-together held between Manchester Central and the Midland Hotel per se, you do probably want to know what’s happening regarding security, transport and how easy it is going to be to get to work.

There’s no denying it would be a blow to the local economy if the conference didn’t come to the city

The question applies to those involved with planning the conference more than most. As of Thursday morning, Manchester Central is a buzzing hive of activity. Diligent-looking types brandishing lanyards seem reasonably relaxed but – in the finest tradition of big events – not 100% sure what is going on. A lost member of the catering team asks me for directions to the staff entrance. The police officers on duty are not sure of the best way to get round the cordons. A Royal Mail employee looks for his trade stand in the wrong place.

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A group of police officers on their way to Manchester Central

And this uncertainty is not surprising. As I wander around the perimeter of the conference centre it is still unknown whether Parliament will vote for a recess. Of course, a recess is not absolutely essential to the conference going ahead – the vast majority of the delegates are not MPs after all, and even then, Parliament does not sit on a Sunday, so MPs could attend for at least the opening day. According to the Guardian, Labour offered to debate non-contentious business on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - which would have allowed MPs to attend the conference without missing out on essential parliamentary business - but the Government turned the offer down in order to push for the recess.

So if the big players can’t attend, or only attend for a couple of days, then the conference will be a very different affair from the bustling, high-security and (after hours at least) convivial events that have been held in Manchester in the past.

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Society is tight at the conference back in 2015

If the conference is cancelled then the knock-on effect for local business could be huge, with some estimates putting the value of holding a conference at £30m boost to the local economy. Even if it goes ahead, the subdued mood could still mean less spend in the area. Conferences also make huge amounts for the political parties too, because members and lobbyists have to pay to attend. Tickets for the main conference are available (at the time of publication) for £520 for a party member ticket up to £1,520 for a commercial guest.

Since my morning wander of course, it becomes clear that Parliament have voted against the recess. James Cleverly, the chairman, has already said the conference is not going to be cancelled but Boris Johnson will likely have to move his speech so he can attend PMQs. 

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Catering vans arrive at Manchester Central

Two people who seem unruffled are Fiona Worrall, Director of Neighbourhoods for Manchester City Council and Stephen Rhodes, Customer Director at TfGM. They tell me preparations for the Conservative Party Conference are going ahead as planned. When asked if she had had any indication that conference might be called off, Fiona Worrall said: “We haven’t been given any indication that anything has been cancelled…we work closely with GMP and all the multi-agency partners and this is the sixth conference we’ve held since 2009, so we’ve got a well-rehearsed routine. We are expecting about 12,000 delegates here as well as other people visiting the city, plus a significant number or protestors, particularly on Sunday."

Stephen Rhodes told me: “We are expecting thousands of people out and about, whether they are protesting, going to the event or going about their day-to-day business. Inevitably there will be some changes to travel arrangements in particular road closures, and there are parking restrictions brought into effect as well. The essence of this, for all the different agencies is that we have been working together for a long period of time on quite detailed plans from a travel and transport perspective. Inevitably with things like this, there can be a ‘well what might happen’ and things can be quite fluid. We are pushing out lots of information on the website and for the likes of Google and SatNav, so there will be real time information. So our advice is to visit tfgm.com, we’ve got some very specific and helpful advice for people."

A huge worry for people is that local business have already scaled up to accomade the predicted influx of people. Jen Wiggins, Manchester Gin co-founder and Master Distiller, who has recently opened a bar restaurant 'Three Little Words' on Watson Street, on part of the Manchester Central Estate, said: “There’s no denying it would be a blow to the local economy if the conference didn’t come to the city. Luckily, we’re a new venue and are still riding the wave of people discovering us so still expect to be busy. Let’s not forget though that like the majority of the city’s bars and restaurants, it’s local people that are our bread and butter and the most important thing is to stay relevant to them and not rely on big events to boost takings. We have the people of Manchester to thank for our success so far and we’ll always be thankful for their support and custom.”

On the subject of potential cancellations, Stephen Rhodes added: “We work closely with the likes of CityCo and other trade bodies and we want people to realise that Manchester is very much open for business. We particularly suggest people try out public transport and we want people to feel like they can still go about their business. That’s an important presumption of how we work."

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The Boris Blimp will be in attendance

Manchester City Council and TfGM are not the only ones planning for the conference to go ahead. Many groups are planning to protest the conference, including the Manchester People’s Assembly, which has organised events throughout the week. The main protest is on Sunday at 2pm and the infamous Boris Blimp - a balloon effigy of Boris Johnson - will be flying above the crowds. Penny Hicks from Manchester People’s Assembly told the Morning Star: “We are heartily sick and very angry that the Tories come to Manchester for their conference.

“They refuse our invitations to tour the city to see for themselves the homeless street sleepers, the hostels trying to accommodate them, the trains and trams packed and cancelled and the hospital queues.

“Because we refuse photo opportunities they are not interested, instead they scuttle from posh hotels inside a protective ring to the conference centre and back."

Chief Superintendent Wasim Chaudry of the GMP said: “We will provide designated areas for people that want to come and exercise their right to peacefully protest.”

Travel advice

At the time of publication, Manchester Central will host the Conservative Party Conference from Sunday 29th September to Wednesday 2nd October 2019.

A number of security measures will be in operation surrounding the conference venue, which will include road closures and parking restrictions.

If you are travelling into the city centre during the conference check the TfGM website for travel advice and live updates.

There will be several protests converging on the Conservative Party Conference: the biggest is likely to be March for Change, which takes place at 2pm on Sunday 29th September, starting at Whitworth Park.