Saddleworth has never seen anything quite like it. Yesterday’s verdict in the Phil Woolas election case put our area on news bulletins across the country, and turned Uppermill Civic Hall into a hive of political drama and excitement.
All the main players in the case were inside the hall long before the decision was due to be announced at 11 o’clock. All that is except the judges themselves, who only caught a train from London to Manchester at breakfast time, and ended up arriving just a few minutes before the appointed hour. That led to a short delay as everything was made ready.
The public area of the hall was packed with well-known local folk, including councillors and other interested people. There was also an array of political workers from both camps, and there was an excited hubbub in the room, only silenced when the judges themselves walked in.
The delivery of the verdict itself took only a few minutes. It quickly became clear that the judges had largely agreed with Elwyn Watkins, who brought the legal challenge. When Mr Justice Teare announced that they had decided to declare the election result void, Mr Woolas slumped back in his chair in disbelief and disappointment.
At the back of the room, journalists and party workers alike scurried out, phones in hand, to break the news to their colleagues. The Liberal Democrats among them had broad smiles. It seemed even they hadn’t expected such a clear cut victory for their man.
As the lawyers continued to argue about the costs of the case, the camera crews waited to be allowed in to the building. Filming and photography has long been banned in English courts and, because the hall was considered a court for such time as the judges were present, the journalists had to wait until the legal argument was over and the judges had gone before they could be allowed in to the room where Mr Woolas was to give a news conference.
During the delay, journalists mingled with members of the public in the Civic Hall car park, which was full of TV satellite trucks. It was so busy, Messrs Woolas and Watkins had even had to park next to each other. Police had been turning cars away all morning, so it was a surprise when a vehicle slowly rumbled up the lane and stopped in the space reserved for the Chairman of the Parish Council. Out got Jenny Begley, the wife of Cllr Keith Begley, who had come to see all the drama for herself.
Shortly after 1 o’clock, Mr Woolas walked into the downstairs room which usually serves as a canteen. Back in April he had put in a typically confident performance at a hustings debate in the same room, but his mood was very different as he sat down with his solicitor to face the media.
Although he must have known that his political future looked bleak, a grim-faced Mr Woolas promised to fight on and said he would be seeking a judicial review. After his solicitor read a statement on his behalf, the men walked back out through the camera crews, pursued by shouted questions from some of the reporters. Despite suffering the indignity of being asked whether he was a liar and a cheat, Mr Woolas even managed a thin smile as council officials led him out of the hall’s side door.
All this time, several young-looking Lib Dem officials had been buzzing around, talking excitedly into their phones rather in the manner of TV’s The Thick Of It. One stepped forward and told the media that Mr Watkins would be speaking outside the front of the Civic Hall instead. That prompted a great rush as everyone, including the crew of students from The Oldham College there to film the events for Saddleworth News TV, hurried back out to set up their cameras and microphones on the pavement.
As the crowd waited for Mr Watkins to emerge, Mr Woolas and his solicitor were driven out of the car park, past the media scrum and down Court Street. The scene prompted many of the journalists to wonder whether it would be the last we’d see of Mr Woolas in Saddleworth politics.
Then, flanked by senior Lib Dem Simon Hughes, Mr Watkins walked out of the front door of the hall to face the media. As he made a brief statement and took a few questions, he avoided any hint of celebration and tried to strike a humble tone, even though he must have been both delighted and relieved. He stressed that he now had a lot of work to do, and as if to prove the point quickly got into a car and drove off to the local Lib Dem HQ, leaving Mr Hughes to handle the press.
The story topped news bulletins on radio and TV throughout the afternoon and evening, and there’s extensive coverage in today’s papers. Uppermill has probably never been so famous. But with a by-election now looming, we might have to get used to the attention, for a little while longer at least.
For the full background to the case, click here.