BACK at Westminster, after the threeweek roadshow of the political conferences, the list of gripes about the annual shindigs is long and getting longer.

First, there are complaints that the cut-and-thrust of debate has been replaced by a dreary, stage-managed “celebration” of the wisdom of the party leaderships, with no dissent allowed.

Second, that the lobbyists have taken over.

This was particularly true at the Conservative conference, where just 4,000 party members were swamped, embarrassingly, by 8,000 representatives from business and the media.

Third, that the rank-and-file are shut out by the obscene cost of attending conference, since cheap-and-cheerful Blackpool and Bournemouth were swapped for costly big cities. Forced to stay in expensive hotels, instead of seaside bed-and-breakfasts, delegates can expect to shell out the cost of a foreign holiday for the privilege. Most, unsurprisingly, prefer the Med.

Now, all these barbs undoubtedly hit their mark. Conferences would be a happier place if there were proper arguments, fewer wideboys in sharp suits and a nice beach outside the window.

However, I’m taking aim at a different target… the truly dreadful speeches by Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, in this age of the TV soundbite.

First, the Labour leader, who does, at least, deserve credit for saying something original and for, in attacking “fast buck” business at the heart of our economic woes, breaking with the paralysing caution of New Labour.

But how does Mr Miliband expect to make voters sit up and listen with a delivery lacking sparkle and killer phrases, or with a speech so lacking in coherence?

He failed to foresee that his division of companies into “producers” and “predators” would prompt the obvious question: “Who are the predators?” His aides could name only one – the shamed Southern Cross care giant. But at least Mr Miliband had a big idea, in stark contrast to Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron, whose speeches were simply embarrassing in their emptiness. The Liberal Democrat leader vowed: “We will do more for growth and for jobs.” But, faced with neareconomic meltdown, he could not even hint at what that action might be.

The Prime Minister delivers his speeches superbly, of course – he’s a treat to listen to – but that could not disguise the lack of meat.

Instead, there was the gruesome sight of a millionaire telling the struggling masses to pull its socks up and stop its “can’t-do sogginess”.

The expenses scandal is probably the main reason for the lack of respect for politicians – but their inability to find the words to match the gravity of these desperate times can’t help.

DURHAM North MP Kevan Jones is a former defence minister, giving him a first-rate insight into the globetrotting of Liam Fox, the beleaguered defence secretary.

Leaving aside the controversy over the business dealings of his friend Adam Werritty, there is incredulity over the scale of Dr Fox’s overseas travel – and his practice of tagging on holidays.

Mr Jones remembered: “When I flew back to Afghanistan, we changed from a commercial plane to an RAF jet in Bahrain at 3am, or some ungodly hour. There was no question of taking two days’ off to sit by a swimming pool in Dubai, when there was a busy department to run. It’s extraordinary.”