Imagine it. You have a hall full of people who had been told up for 7.30 sharp and they are gagging to get going and support their candidate. And they're getting increasingly impatient. What would you do? Well, there was only one thing for it - get Eric Pickles up on stage. So for the next hour and a bit I interviewed Eric and took questions from the audience. In the end, after more than 400 people had packed into the hall, we eventually got going.
There were four candidates. Each was supposed to be quizzed by me for ten minutes and then by the audience for the same time. When I announced this the audience made their feelings very clear (!) so I got the agreement of the candidates to halve it. During the delay they had been patiently waiting in a rather austere classroom.
The four candidates were deputy mayor Nicky Attenborough, local GP Jason Reddy, farmer and councillor Tom Wootton and Parvez Akhtar, who is on the parliamentary candidates list. They had been shortlisted late last week by the local Conservatives.
I did an interview with the local paper before it all started, which ended with the journalist asking who I thought should win! I gently explained that as the host for the evening it would be rather invidious of me to express a preference!
This was the largest Open Primary the party has ever run and I made sure the audience knew it. I told them they should be proud that their borough had turned out in such number. There were clearly many there who had never been to a political meeting before in their lives. So I tried to make it all as entertaining as possible.
All four candidates performed well. Normally in these cicumstances there is a clear frontrunner and someone who doesn't resonate at all. Not here. I tried to ask them all fairly similar questions with one or two others relating to their CVs. Two candidates equivocated over local education reforms (moving from three tier to two) and said they would wait for the consultation to be over before giving their views. Some in the audience saw it as a responsible position to take, while others clearly expected a potential civic leader to give their personal view. I asked them what they could learn from the experience of other elected mayors and if they would be following the example of the mayor of Doncaster who has cut his salary in half. The answers to that question probably told the audience more about the candidates than any other. The quality of questions from the audience was excellent and tested all the candidates.
There was a lot of humour during the course of the evening. When I was explaining the voting system someon shouted out: "Can we vote for you?" and got a round of applause. I laughed and suggested that they might get the chance if local MP Alastair Burt stood down!
The winner of the contest turned out to be Parvez Akhtar, who won on the first ballot. He had clearly mobilised his support better than the other candidates. One or two people were clearly accusing him of packing the room. My reaction is simple. So what? The other candidates had the same opportunity to get there supporters there. His challenge now is to keep his supporters involved in his campaign.
Let me also say something about the reaction of some local party members. Most of them were delighted with the massive turnout and the way the event was conducted. They recognised it was a landmark night for the party and welcomed the partiipation of the wider community. But there were some who felt the candidate should have been selected by them and them alone. I understand their viewpoint but they must recognise that the party has changed and needs to look outside its comfort zone. Whatever their private thoughts about the Open Primary system they should now get behind the winning candidate and help him win the by-election on 15 October. Now is not the time for any sort of show of disunity or petulent stamping of feet.
I have to say that although I thoroughly enjoyed hosting the event, it was one of the more challenging nights of my life. It was the biggest Open Primary ever run and while in some ways it showed the party at its best, it also showed that the system still has some organisational teething problems. It was good that Eric Pickles unexpectedly showed up, so he could see at first hand the upsides and downsides of holding such a big event.
If you were there and are reading this, share your views in the comments with my readers.