UUP leadership election – the final triumph of civic Unionism?

UPDATE 2 So, I royally called this wrong with magical timing. However I stand by the analysis as reasons why Kennedy isn’t the front runner he is touted as, and why McCallister might now be tempted to cut a deal with Nesbitt. Why is Kennedy weakened? What HAS changed in the last 18 months – don’t forget it was Kennedy ruling himself out that pushed Elliott into the job he never wanted. What precisely was this all about? How will he square that and the decision to build a road they really don’t want with Elliott’s support base in Fermanagh? Can he stand on a platform removed from unionist unity and be believed? He now has momentum and claims to have a “clear majority” of MLAs. We’ll see. But he certainly isn’t going to walk it.

I wrote and published the below article over the weekend. It was up for half an hour when Mick called me to let me know the entire premise was false. Kennedy had not ruled himself out, the Portadown Times was wrong. I republish it now because as time goes on I get the feeling more and more that he wont in fact stand. Why would he? What has changed since he took the decision not to 18 months ago? Alex Kane clearly thinks that the difference between Nesbitt and McCallister will be on opposition, and given that was the only division between me and Rodney McCune on Inside Politics yesterday, he may be right. But that being the case, both men need to be wary of their position. There is no easy answer to the question, and the balance between having a winning message on 31st March and a workable position on 2nd April is narrow.

First published on Saturday:

The Portadown Times are reporting that Danny Kennedy has ruled himself out of the UUP leadership election. With Basil McCrea reportedly out of the country for two weeks as of yesterday morning, that appears to only leave Mike Nesbitt and John McCallister.

Not so long ago we used to talk about a divide within unionism between ethnic and civic unionists. It’s clumsy but has the ring of truth to it. By using these generalisations, Kennedy ruling himself out on the face of it leaves the UUP leadership a straight fight between civic Ulster Unionists. There is no other “ethnic” UUP member with a realistic chance of taking the leadership.

Assuming that McCrea is out, which he should be if for no other reason than he had his go, failed, and should now row in behind John out of reciprocal loyalty, this election will be between Nesbitt and McCallister. Nesbitt has his own growing support base within the party in greater Belfast, but will also attract support from those in the west who noticed his loyalty to Elliott from even before the last leadership election. But he may suffer for being something of an unknown quantity given that he is a party member of barely two years standing. McCallister is a popular man within the Party, and will prove in this election to be more than capable of winning support through sheer force of personality in a campaign of this nature. However some of his media performances have left a mark with some that he frankly doesn’t deserve. But he has it nonetheless.

The question that this matching raises, is what is the difference? I’m not convinced there is one to speak of. Both are transparently civic Unionists. Both were true believers in the UCUNF project. Both men have their own support bases, quickly assembled in their short years in politics. It is even something of a barometer that neither man is likely to court David McNarry but both are going to want David McClarty back. On the night, they might struggle to differentiate themselves from the other, which invites self inflicted wounds in trying too hard to find a USP.

There are few wildcards out there, and any that do appear will have a mountain to climb. With Kennedy out it surely must be Mike Nesbitt’s to lose. But John McCallister is the one man in the UUP capable of taking it off him. With nothing to lose, I’d be shocked if he didn’t give it a crack.