“He’s from the secret service.” It wasn’t entirely clear if 76-year-old Ukip member John Howsam was joking, but he had gone to the effort of making a sign reading: “MI6 plant to destroy Ukip – Henry Bolton must go”, so it was a pretty strong commitment to a gag.
Waiting to enter the cavernous hall where Henry Bolton would make his pitch to stay as party leader, there seemed to be more Ukip members planning to vote to get rid of him than save his neck.
Neil and Christine Hamilton – who know a thing or two about political scandal – were also in attendance. Christine told me she was unhappy with how Bolton had “flaunted” his relationship with model Jo Marney within days of leaving his wife and children. She then slapped me on the bottom after our interview was over.
The Ukip members – who all looked exactly like you would imagine Ukip members to look – filed into the hall to hear the case for and against Bolton.
No press were allowed, although some slipped past security and took their place among the activists. Alas for Gabriel Pogrund from the Sunday Times, he tweeted a photo from where he was sat, making it easy for Ukip’s outgoing comms director Gawain Towler to locate him and his colleague Camilla Long and sling them out of the room.
On the stage, outgoing party chairman Paul Oakden (there are a lot ‘outgoings’ in Ukip at the moment – and not just from its bank balance) appealed to members’ sense of good old fashioned British fair play and said people should behave and not boo. Thus when Bolton entered the room, he was spared heckles, and even treated to pockets of applause.
Bolton, a former solider, decided the best form of defence is attack. He called his opponents “the enemy within”, criticised the party’s ruling committee and even used the second of his two speeches to threaten legal action if he lost the vote.
That attack came after a speaker from the NEC revealed Bolton had already called for the EGM to be called off unless one of his political opponents was kicked out of the party.
Together with his attempt in the last leadership contest to get another contender thrown off the ballot, it seems Bolton has been taking lessons in communication from George Galloway.
Some members didn’t even stick out the whole meeting. One gentleman left early as he had recently come out of hospital and wasn’t feeling well, a couple walked out in anger at Bolton’s speech (‘He’s a plant from the Liberals,’ one said – well, Bolton did stand for the Lib Dems in 2005) and others had heard nothing to change their views.
With the speeches over and the voting completed, Ukip decided to go for maximum transparency and hold the count on the stage, in full view of the 1,400 members and gathered media.
Oakden lapped up the attention, pacing around the stage looking like a low-budget Dermot O’Leary hosting a Butlin’s version of the X Factor. As we watched this great exercise in democracy, the tension grew and grew. One Ukip member was so desperate to take her mind off the high-pressured situation she began to babble nervously about her most recent course of antibiotics.
After about 25 minutes of counting, Dermot O’Oakden stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat. The room fell to a hush, journalists grabbed their phones to tweet the announcement, and film crews whirled their cameras to face the stage. Looking out into the hall, Dermot O’Oakden declared: “Any members travelling on the Eastbourne coach, its departure has been delayed until five o’clock.”
What a tease. He might as well have announced it had gone to deadlock.
After a further announcement – informing a Mr Dickenson his bank card had been found and that a phone and pair of glasses had been left on the stage – the moment of truth arrived.
O’Oakden used the opportunity to give a five minute speech on how much he loved the party and what it needed to do to change. It was such a naked pitch to be the next leader it was no surprise when he announced Bolton was out.
Batten had done the calculation you see. Populist policies are dubbed “populist” because they are popular. Therefore, if Ukip just calls for things that are popular, it will be the most powerful party in the land. Expect record spending on the NHS together with tax cuts, mass housebuilding but not on fields where you used to play growing up, free university education and an increase in pensioner benefits, fewer laws restricting what you want to do but more laws stopping people you don’t like doing what they want to do. It’s amazing that no one has thought of this before.
Bolton appeared in the hall after the result had been announced to face the exit music, variously suggesting he would pursue legal action against certain people, launch his own party and run again for the leadership.
His sometime on-again, on-again girlfriend Jo Marney greeted the news of Bolton’s defenestration by tweeting: “Well... @_HenryBolton... at least we don’t have to have sex anymore!”
“How disappointing”, Bolton said, when confronted with the tweet. With his Lady Jane Grey-style stint as Ukip leader over, he can finally give Marney the Valentine’s Day card and by now wilting roses he must surely have been keeping in the boot of his car in anticipation at a formal reunification.
Their democratic duty done, Ukip members left the International Conference Centre as quick as they could. The party only had the venue until 5pm you see, and if people loitered too long Ukip would be hit by additional rent charges.
But with the cost of another leadership election estimated to cost over £30,000, it might have been cheaper if the Kippers just stayed put and held the vote for the next permanent leader then and there. And for the one after that. And for the one after that.