Yorkshire's missing UKIP contenders

(top row left to right) Lisa Duffy, Bill Etheridge, Diane James; (bottom row left to right) Phillip Broughton, Elizabeth Jones and Jonathan Arnott Image copyright PA
Image caption Diane James (top right) and Liz Jones (bottom centre) were absent from the Wakefield event

There was more than one puzzled face in the audience when the UK Independence Party campaign to replace Nigel Farage as leader arrived for its only event in Yorkshire.

The 90 or so members who turned up in Wakefield came armed with questions for all six contenders.

It took a long time before it dawned on them that they need not have bothered preparing anything to put to the bookie's favourite, East of England MEP Diane James, or the Lambeth-based NEC member Liz Jones.

Neither of them turned up.

The assumption was that they would dash in at any minute embarrassingly promising that under a UKIP government the train service to Wakefield would arrive on time.

Or maybe a last-minute sick note had been sent with heartfelt apologies for having to miss such an important opportunity to talk to Yorkshire members.

But when the chairman opened proceedings there was not even an acknowledgement that they did not have a full house of candidates up on the stage.

Puzzlement grew as former Sheffield teacher and now MEP for the North East Jonathan Arnott took his five-minute allotted slot to make his pitch without mentioning the absences.

Without a hint of irony, all four of the Wakefield speeches centred on the need for the leadership to stop backstabbing and ensure the entire party pulled together.

Puzzled chair

An increasingly incredulous audience member finally asked the chairman why two of those they expected to see had not turned up.

All they got was a rather terse: "You will have to ask them."

Afterwards Diane James' office issued a statement saying she would run her own campaign and refused to confirm that she had not taken time off from a holiday in France to turn up at the hustings.

I learned afterwards that this was the third hustings event of 12 planned across the country and each one had seen the four candidates who turned up in Wakefield.

At the previous two in Scotland and Gateshead the absences went unreported because UKIP had not invited the media.

Bill Etheridge, the West Midlands MEP who has also put his hat in the ring, later posted a message on Twitter: "We should not just select our leaders on the basis of who the press office put up to appear on Question Time."

Has the bubble burst?

It is not as if Yorkshire is a UKIP backwater.

In little more than a decade what the former Prime Minister David Cameron described as "a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" in 2016 has become a force to be reckoned with.

Its high point was at the 2014 European Parliamentary election where it topped the poll and took three of Yorkshire and the Humber's six seats.

But despite some solid second places in the General Election and a string of by-elections it has not made the breakthrough to take seats in the House of Commons.

One of its Yorkshire MEPs has also defected to the Conservatives.

So with a mere 90 or so members turning up in Wakefield and the Brexit argument won has the UKIP bubble burst?

Yorkshire and the Humber MEP Mike Hookem told me at the Wakefield event that the need for the party is as great now as it ever has been.

"Our job now is to make sure that the government carries out the will of the people and carries out Brexit.

"I'm backing Bill Etheridge and I feel under him we will win many Westminster seats."