THE time was 7.20pm.
That was when one of the most dramatic moments in Southampton’s political history unfolded, as city council leader Richard Williams stood down following an inquiry into his conduct.
There was a stunned silence, followed by gasps as the Labour boss read out a short statement announcing his resignation and immediately walked out of the council chamber.
Even the opposition councillors who had tabled a motion of no confidence in him were lost for words.
After the shock had subsided, former colleagues from the Labour hierarchy paid tribute to Mr Williams, who only became leader last May.
Then deputy leader Jacqui Rayment was nominated and voted in as his successor.
Mr Williams’ resignation came after an independent report found he had misled the public about the reasons for Cabinet colleague Keith Morrell’s resignation.
That report was commissioned after the Daily Echo revealed that Mr Williams had persuaded Cllr Morrell to go along with a fictional story that he was resigning for health reasons, when in fact he was stepping down due to policy disagreements and was in perfect health.
And as the Daily Echo revealed yesterday there were damning allegations contained in the 85-page confidential draft of the report first handed in to the council.
Among them was Cllr Morrell’s allegation that Mr Williams had shouted and sworn at him.
Cllr Morrell also claimed in the draft that Mr Williams tried to convince him not to resign, saying “you don’t have to do anything – just draw the money”.
Meanwhile, his deputy, Cllr Rayment, had said he had lacked “clear leadership” in dealing with the crisis.
Yesterday, the Daily Echo revealed that 62 pages of this draft were eventually cut from the final report after it had been seen by Mr Williams and Cllrs Rayment and Morrell.
Most of these more damaging allegations had been removed, including evidence from the council’s former director of communication, who said he had felt “duped”
in sending out a press release saying Cllr Morrell had resigned due to health issues on May 23.
It had been sent out on Mr Williams’ orders and had been checked by Cllr Rayment.
The report was commissioned last October and when the final version was published last week, it also admonished Mr Williams for failing to stick to nat i o n a l g u i d e - lines on o p e n - ness and honesty, saying he had been “economical with the truth” in covering up the real reasons for Cllr Morrell’s resignation.
An extraordinary council meeting was called for last night for councillors to debate the debacle, while the Conservative opposition put forward a motion of no confidence in Mr Williams.
He had been expected to resist the calls to resign, but instead stood up to address the council and said: “I reiterate my apologies I made last week in relation to the mistakes I made.
“In light of what has happened I am as of now standing down from the authority and I hope you will accept my resignation.”
With only a few of his closest colleagues aware of his decision, there was widespread shock from all areas of the chamber.
Cllr Rayment, before her election as new leader, addressed the council in the wake of Mr Williams’ announcement.
She said: “I would like to unreservedly apologise for my part in what I see as a mess.
Cllr Morrell, who has since left the Labour group to form the Labour Councillors Against The Cuts, apologised for his role in the crisis and said: “The attempt to conceal the real reason for my resignation by saying that I was ill was indefensible. I agreed initially to go along with the story out of loyalty to the Labour Party, but it was, of course, by its very nature unsustainable and soon fell apart.
“Attempts since then to try to deny the truth have been, at times, almost grotesque.”
Reacting to Mr Williams'departure, opposition leader Royston Smith said: “I am surprised Cllr Williams has done this. This did not have to get to this stage.”
HOW THE SAGA UNFOLDED:
It started as a “fiction” designed to prevent political embarrassment, but yesterday the story ended with the resignation of the council’s leader.
Only two weeks after Labour swept to power, Richard Williams found himself dealing with the resignation of a senior member of his new administration.
But rather than accept Keith Morrell’s real reasons for standing down Mr Williams set in motion a chain of events that culminated in yesterday’s dramatic scenes in the council chamber. This is how the story unfolded: control of the council, with Mr Williams named as new leader. Cllr Morrell is named as Cabinet member for efficiency and improvement.
May 22: Cllr Morrell sends an email to the leader tendering his resignation from the Cabinet. Cllr Rayment is made aware, and Mr Williams speaks to Cllr Morrell on the telephone.
May 23: Following a second phone call between Mr Williams and Cllr Morrell, it is agreed that “ill health” shall be named as the reason for his resignation. Mr Williams orders director of communications Ben White to prepare a press release and it is checked by Cllr Rayment before being sent out.
May 24: Cllr Morrell reveals to the Daily Echo the real reason for this resignation.
May 25: The Echo publishes the story on the truth behind his departure from the Cabinet.
June 25: At an extraordinary meeting of the council, Cllr Rayment apologises for not checking the press release and a vote of no confidence in Mr Williams is unsuccessful.
October 19: The inquiry into the conduct of Mr Williams and Cllrs Rayment and Morrell is launched after the Echo prints Cllr Morrell’s resignation email.
November 13-February 14, 2013: Interviews conducted as part of the investigation.
March 3: The draft report is handed by Richard Lingard to council monitoring officer Mark Heath, and Mr Williams and Cllrs Rayment and Morrell are allowed to comment on its findings.
April 17: The final report – with 62 pages of evidence cut from the draft report – is published and Mr Williams apologises for his “mistakes”.
April 25: The Daily Echo publishes details from the draft report, and at an extraordinary council meeting Mr Williams resigns, with Cllr Rayment taking over as leader.