The British National Party has been at the forefront of politics in Stoke-on-Trent for the past seven years, since outsider Steve Batkin stunned sceptical observers by coming third in the 2002 mayoral elections.
Since then, while more established political parties have crumbled and lost ground, the BNP has seized upon the slightest sign of weakness in its opponents.
Mr Batkin may have been a lone figure in the council chamber in 2003, but within five years he was joined by eight more members. In the same period, Labour's once total grip on power evaporated, leaving the party with little choice but to go into opposition for the first time in the city council's history. The Conservatives have had to form a tenuous alliance with centre-right independents to muster enough numbers to occupy key political posts.
The recent emergence of the Stoke-on-Trent Independent Group not only cut the Conservative and Independent Alliance to just seven members, but also made the BNP the outright third largest political group in the city, just five seats behind Labour.
When last year's mayoral referendum took place, the BNP backed the campaign to retain the elected mayoral system, leading many political commentators to speculate openly about the possibility of a BNP mayor running the city. In short, the BNP under Alby Walker's leadership had become a major political force. But that all changed on Wednesday evening when Mr Walker sent a tersely-worded email to council officers stating that he had quit as leader.
Of course, he would not be the first senior political figure to stand down for personal reasons. But the email made it clear that he was stepping down before his group had even begun to appoint a successor. In fact, that is not likely to happen until January. Then, when The Sentinel contacted deputy group leader, Councillor Michael Coleman, three hours later, he said he knew nothing of the resignation.
Leadership changes happen, but stable political parties try to plan ahead to smooth the transition and reassure their members and supporters. The BNP is not a localised council group operating in its own tiny bubble of influence. It is part of a large, organised political body with its own national and regional leadership structure. It is unthinkable that anyone in the BNP's hierarchy who knew of Mr Walker's intention would let him make his announcement without carefully managing the situation.
But party leader Nick Griffin certainly seemed to have no knowledge of the crisis developing in the city he likes to call the jewel in the BNP's crown. Speaking from the climate summit in Copenhagen, an obviously flustered Mr Griffin said: "I'm afraid I don't know anything about this. I've no idea what's happening in Stoke-on-Trent."
Clearly party chiefs, like the council group, did not know of Mr Walker's plans until after he had executed them.
When he confirmed his resignation that evening, he not only admitted that he was unlikely to stand for election to retain his seat in May, but also refused to say whether he would remain with the party at all. One source close to Mr Walker has suggested the announcement was timed to prevent someone else leaking the news of his planned resignation to "stab him in the back". But the fact that his own group did not know what he had done, even hours afterwards, implies that the attack he feared was expected to come from within, rather than from rival parties.
Since Wednesday, the group has been displaying a united front once again, and members are bullish about its chances of making yet more gains at the polls. Mr Coleman confidently expects to take 10 more seats in May and a further 15 in 2011. But he may have given an insight into the real mood within the group when he said: "It is going to be a difficult 18 months ahead of us. It's getting harder now, not easier."
He also said that he felt Mr Walker had "done the sensible thing" in resigning now, to let others take on the burden of fighting three Parliamentary and 20 council seats next year, as well as all 45 council seats in 2011.
Up until now, the BNP's successes have been victories against the mainstream parties on the back of mounting public discontent with New Labour, and the Blair and Brown Governments. It would seem that Mr Walker certainly has done the sensible thing – he is quitting while he's ahead, before the progress he has made begins to falter.
The current balance of power within the council means that, in order to continue their meteoric rise, the BNP is soon going to have to vie for votes with the independents – solid community candidates who are not shackled by party dogma and whips or hampered by the conduct of their representatives in Westminster.
Mr Walker was facing re-election in May, and would have been a prime target for his political foes. Defeat would have been a massive blow for his party and a major propaganda coup for his rivals. But his departure ahead of polling day means that, should another party take the seat, they will not be able to claim the trophy of toppling the BNP leader, and their victory cannot be recorded as a defeat for the far-right party.
Mr Coleman may make an even stronger leader for the group; only time will tell. But if he fails to deliver on his morale-boosting promises of sweeping electoral gains over the next two years, then he could find himself at the head of a declining party with no political weapons he can use to fight back at the formidable independents.