The Holt Surge: A by-election story

It is with great sadness that I have to report that today is the last day at Lib Dem HQ for James Holt, the party’s Director of Communications. Jammy and I have been brothers-in-arms for a long time. We started out as press officers together in opposition before the 2010 election. I was then his deputy when he was Head of Media for much of the coalition years, a job I succeeded him at when he was appointed as a special adviser in 10 Downing Street in 2013, which was another job I succeeded him at when he returned to HQ in 2014 to help get the party machine ready for the general election.

He’s a brilliant comms professional, a relentlessly upbeat personality and someone I am very privileged to call my mate. By way of tribute, here’s the brief story of my favourite Holty moment. It is set, as all the best Lib Dem stories are, not in HQ or No 10 but on the campaign trail. In this case, it was the 2013 Eastleigh by-election which was very much a make or break campaign for the party.


Jammy, in the middle, clearly not sure how to answer our old press office mucker Donald Campbell’s question.

Here’s the problem. You are inside a building on a trading estate in Hampshire with the Deputy Prime Minister and somewhere in the region of 100-150 Liberal Democrat activists, where said Deputy Prime Minister has just delivered a rousing speech to said activists on the eve of a make-or-break parliamentary by-election. Outside the building is the car that the Deputy Prime Minister will be leaving in.

Between the car and the building are around two dozen reporters, snappers and TV cameras, all of whom are desperate for a slice of the Deputy Prime Minister, not to talk about said by-election or said speech, but about a scandal that is dominating the news in an otherwise quiet week about allegations of sexual harassment made against the party’s former chief executive.

What do you do?

That’s when James Holt had a lightbulb moment. The entrance to the building was an enormous roll-up, corrugated metal affair, like a huge garage door or the sort of thing you would use to protect a massive off license after hours. The press pack were all expecting the DPM to come out through the smaller front door, built into the roll-up wall, into an open car park, where they could pounce on him like jaguars on a gazelle. So, Holty arranged dozens of activists, some gripping placards and bright orange diamonds, inside the building facing the entrance, like infantry preparing to march into battle.

Behind the advanced guard was Nick Clegg flanked by dozens more activists and, rather conspicuously, a couple of the Metropolitan Police’s finest close protection officers.

On the count of three, the roll up wall was flung upwards and out charged the activists, Nick among them, cheering and chanting the campaign’s slogan ‘I like Mike’ (our candidate was Mike Thornton) over and over again as they pushed through the befuddled journalists and out towards the car at the other end of the car park.

Nick was safely escorted, through a crowd of cheering activists, to his car, and whisked away back to London. No reporter got close to him. As the crowd dispersed, a few bamboozled journalists were left standing in an increasingly empty car park wondering what on Earth had just happened and what they were supposed to tell their newsdesks.

The novel manoeuvre was quickly christened the ‘Holt Surge’ and is now a firm part of Liberal Democrat by-election folklore.

Good luck, Chief.


For what it’s worth, we beat them. As did UKIP.

3 thoughts on “The Holt Surge: A by-election story

  1. Pingback: Phil O’Reilly becomes Lib Dems’ Director of Communications

  2. Pingback: Phil O’Reilly becomes Lib Dems’ Director of Communications – Hub Politic

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