Blackpool back on the political map - decades after Bill Clinton's surprise McDonald's visit

Blackpool, once the most famous town in British politics, is today back on the political map.

The UK's premier party conference venue since the 1920s hasn't staged an autumn conference since 2007.

But now, with a high-profile by-election in Blackpool South, the town's back in the news and top politicians have been heading to Blackpool again.

Speaking in Blackpool in October 2007, the leader of the opposition goaded a new prime minister who'd become leader of his party unopposed to call a general election.

Sound familiar? But it wasn't Sir Keir Starmer challenging Rishi Sunak. Then it was David Cameron taunting Gordon Brown, just weeks after he'd succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister.

Blackpool is steeped in political history. To be fair, the Conservatives did hold their 2022 spring conference there, but that's a much smaller event compared to the big autumn jamborees.

The glorious Winter Gardens, a vast Victorian palace of entertainment, and the famous Imperial Hotel, where prime ministers going back decades stayed, are part of political folklore.

When the top politicians weren't on stage, showbiz legends including Elton John, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Morecambe and Wise and Bob Hope performed at the Winter Gardens.

But perhaps the biggest box office star to play Blackpool was in fact a politician. Bill Clinton delivered a powerful speech at the 2002 Labour conference. But that wasn't all that had delegates talking.

Shortly before 11pm, with his entourage in tow, the former US president left staff at a seafront McDonald's speechless when he dropped in for a burger and coke, staying for half an hour.

The Imperial still has its iconic No.10 Bar, with photos and mementoes of prime ministers stretching back to Lloyd George, stained glass, chandeliers, wood panelling and club-style leather chairs.

History was made in Blackpool in 1963, before Conservative leaders were elected, when a bitter power struggle to succeed Harold Macmillan as prime minister was fought out in the conference between Alec Douglas-Home and Rab Butler.

In the 1970s, it was where Margaret Thatcher made her first conference speech as Tory leader in 1975, attacking Labour's "socialist disease" in a speech received with rapturous cheers and foot-stamping. She was on her way.

On the other hand, a year later in the same Winter Gardens, Labour chancellor Denis Healey faced boos and abuse from left-wingers as he defended going cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund to save the pound.

And in 1977, a fresh-faced 16-year-old burst on to the political scene in Blackpool. In a barnstorming speech, William Hague told his middle-aged and elderly Tory audience: "It's all right for you. You won't be here in 30 or 40 years time."

With a mop of blonde hair in those days, legend has it that he infuriated another famous Tory blonde, Michael Heseltine, by stealing the day's headlines from a speech by the flamboyant shadow environment secretary.

A year after Mr Clinton's visit, in 2003 the Tories were back in Blackpool, with leader Iain Duncan Smith declaring: "The quiet man is here to stay and he's turning up the volume." Except he didn't stay. Weeks later he was ousted.

In 2005, after Michael Howard stood down as Tory leader, five candidates to succeed him took part in a "beauty contest" in the Winter Gardens, when Mr Cameron surged from outsider to favourite after a performance described by Sky News as "electrifying".

During that conference, David Davis, the early front-runner, was criticised for parading young women supporters in tight-fitting T-shirts proclaiming "It's DD for me". Headline writers called it "a storm in a DD-cup".

Two years later, by now leader, Mr Cameron - using a now-familiar style of strolling around the stage without notes - challenged the then prime minister: "So, Mr Brown. What's it going to be? Why don't you go ahead and call that election." But he didn't.

Of all the party leaders, Mr Hague was perhaps the biggest fan of Blackpool. At the 1999 conference, he declared in his speech: "We're coming back to Blackpool every other year.

"Long after the Labour Party has become too snobbish to go almost anywhere in the country, we're coming back to Blackpool."

The Tories did indeed, for a while. As did Labour. But not these days. And instead of a big party conference it's a high-profile by-election that's put the famous seaside resort back on the political map.